The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya
The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya
What is happening to women in Chechnya today? What are “honor killings” and why are they becoming more widespread? Feminist activist Mika Sargsyan gives details of Seda Suleimanova’s case and its context

Seda’s story: timeline

On 23 August 2023, a Chechen woman, Seda Suleymanova. was forcibly taken by the police from her home in St. Petersburg. She shared the accommodation with Stanislav Kudryavtsev, a resident of St. Petersburg, her fiancé. She was detained by St. Petersburg police officers, who then handed Seda over to their Chechen counterparts. The latter passed her on to her relatives in Chechnya, from whom she had fled earlier, fearing persecution and reprisal.

The pretext for the detention and transfer to Chechnya was a jewelry theft allegedly committed by the girl in the Chechen Republic. However, as soon as Seda was brought to the city of Grozny, she was denied meeting with a lawyer, and she was immediately handed over to her relatives whereas the case against her disappeared.

On 4 September Mansur Soltayev, the human rights official in the Chechen Republic, published a video in which he was walking alongside the silent Suleymanova, confirming that she was alive and “safe.” Since then, neither photos nor videos of the girl have been published, and no other evidence of her being alive has been provided, neither to the public, human rights activists, nor her fiancé and close friends. Rumors began to circulate online that her brothers and uncle had killed her.

The human rights organization NC SOS Crisis Group has been trying to get in touch with Seda Suleymanova’s family for several months. Stanislav Kudryavtsev, Seda’s fiancé, was eager to obtain consent from the girl’s family to marry her. He converted to Islam — the ceremony was documented on camera so he would be able to marry according to the religious traditions. However, the family refused to communicate in any way.

On 1 February 2024, Lena Patyayeva, Seda’s friend, had a one-person protest outside the Prosecutor’s Office building in St. Petersburg with a sign reading “Is Seda Suleymanova alive?” She was detained by police for alleged violations of anti-COVID restrictions.

On 7 February NC SOS Crisis Group stated that there were serious grounds to fear that Seda had been killed, with reference to two sources in the Chechen Republic. It was labeled a so-called “honor killing” — that is, the girl could have been killed because she had been a shame for her family by having lived independently in St. Petersburg and had planned to marry a Russian man, Stanislav Kudryavtsev. After the publication of this information, Seda Suleymanova’s close friends organized a public campaign to raise awareness of her fate and demand an investigation from the authorities of the Russian Federation.

On 9 February Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and a member of the Yabloko political party, filed an official request for the Ministry of Internal Affairs to inspect the situation in the Chechen Republic.

On 12 February NC SOS Crisis Group received a response from the Prosecutor’s Office to citizens’ appeals stating that Seda Suleymanova had voluntarily returned to Chechnya. On 13 February they launched a new campaign urging the public to send mass appeals online to the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor’s Office, and Tatiana Moskalkova, the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation. This time, the appeals included information about the possible murder of Seda Suleymanova and evidence pointing to it.

On 14 February Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Human Rights Council under the President of Russia, appealed to Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, and Igor Krasnov, the Prosecutor General, asking them to check the information about the possible murder of Seda Suleymanova.

On 21 February Valery Fadeyevev, the head of the Human Rights Council, said that the HRC would also take up the case after having received calls from journalists from Gazeta.ru and a letter from Lena Patyayeva, Seda’s friend.

On 8 March Lena Patyayeva again took to a one-person protest near the Prosecutor’s Office building. She was again detained — for 48 hours this time, with an allegation of organizing an “unauthorized mass gathering”.

NC SOS Crisis Group received over two thousand appeals as part of the campaign for online appeals to Russia’s official authorities. It recently became known that following the appeals campaign, on 25 March, a criminal case was finally initiated regarding the “disappearance of Seda Suleymanova”. But it remains unknown whether the case will be investigated or if the results presented to the public will be merely formal. According to Said Sirazhudinova, a researcher of women’s rights violations in the North Caucasus, “Chechen society will not concern itself with Seda Suleymanova’s case, as people see it as a family matter. And no one from her family will reveal what happened to her. There is no investigation and there won’t be one.” 

Seda Suleymanova’s story is sadly a typical case of crimes against women in the Chechen Republic. It should be viewed in the historical and political context of what is happening in the North Caucasus and Chechnya specifically.

Historical context: adat customary laws, pre-Islamic traditions, and “honor killings”

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when “honor killings” became common in the North Caucasus, as this topic has been little studied. It is known that some isolated cases of such killings of women by male family members occurred as early as the 19th century. In the 20th century, they were no longer isolated cases but a regular occurrence. Here’s how journalist Polina Zherebtsova describes it, as someone who spent her childhood and youth in Chechnya in the 80s and early 90s: “In my childhood, almost every family in the highlands had a story to tell about a husband or an uncle who killed his wife, or a brother who killed his sister.” The perpetrators and their like-minds in the North Caucasus republics generally justify their actions through ancient traditions and customs (adats), or, supposedly existing religious norms. It is not uncommon for commentators on the internet to justify such murders by the need to take care of the “purity of Chechen blood.” 

However, as the authors of the “Honor Killings of Women in the North Caucasus” report state, “the analysis of “honor killing” cases shows that these crimes are not based on traditions, adats customs, or Sharia norms, but on self-imposed and arbitrary personal and clan ambitions, reinforced and incited by public opinion pressure, gossip, rumors, and slander.”

Although “honor killings” are prevalent in many Islamic countries, they undoubtedly contradict Islamic norms. At least within this religion, killings are only justified by a Sharia court verdict, not as a result of vigilante justice carried out by relatives based on rumors. However, despite this obvious contradiction to Islam, men who practice such killings often justify their actions by religion.

Researchers suggest it is not uncommon for murderers to be driven by caving into the pressure of public opinion. In other words, a father or brother might not necessarily kill their daughter or sister, despite how they feel about decorum. But the extended family members or neighbors disapprove, reproach, and harass them until they or another family member decides on a murder.

Another quote from the “Honour Killings of Women in the North Caucasus” report: “In these cases, the community is responsible for the murder as people discuss, denounce, gossip, incite, and even clearly instigate the crime by making such comments as, ‘Are you not man enough? What kind of highlander are you if you put up with such behavior and haven’t killed her!’ The respondents believe that many men who committed ‘honor killings’ have heard such words.”

It is difficult for an outsider to comprehend how a person can prioritize the opinion of neighbors, the infamous concern of “what people might think,” over the life of an immediate family member. However, it is noteworthy that such susceptibility to public opinion “among their own” goes far beyond the native village. Many Chechens living in the central part of Russia or even in Europe continue to adhere to such norms. “Once they tracked down one woman in Poland, and we had to move her to another country,” says Svetlana Gannushkina. “That’s why we have to change women’s names and documents.”

This is confirmed by Polina Zherebtsova: “It’s quite easy to track down worldwide those who defy traditions — there are multi-thousand groups of Chechen, Dagestanis, and Ingush descendants on WhatsApp. The guardians of adat customs have created extensive agent networks there. Someone from their homeland drove by in a car, saw someone who would be punished in the supermarket, they instantly took a photo, reported where and when they saw that person.”

It can be assumed that such values ​​are dear to some representatives of the North Caucasian peoples in the context of nationalist ideas. Control over “their” women is often present as one of the important principles in various forms of nationalism. In this case, control is maximized, up to the extent of readiness to commit murder, and opposed to the uncontrolled, “promiscuous” women of other nationalities.

Whatever the motivations of the killers, “honor killings” occur in the North Caucasus, and their number is not decreasing. This happens, in part, because such killings in the Russian Caucasus often go unpunished.

Legal context

“How could he have put up with people’s laughing, passing him by without greeting him? Now, he is no hero, as it’s an ordinary thing: he killed his daughter. He did the right thing, no doubt.”  This remark is striking not only because it is utterly cruel but because it was made by a lawyer.

Chechen lawyer Ilyas Timishev uttered these words while talking with journalists from Mediazona. Timishev was explaining his position regarding the case of his client Sultan Daurbekov, who had strangled his daughter Zarema in 2013. Timishev openly admits, “If it were up to me, he would not get punished at all.” He sympathizes with the murderer and fully justifies him as “he was harassed as a lesser man.”

Naturally, the opinion of a lawyer as a private individual seems insignificant from a legal point of view. However, this is what Timishev said defending the accused at the trial: “The point is, Daurbekov did not take his daughter’s life, he did not kill her. We should rather say: he took her out of life so that she would not be a disgrace to herself, her father, and all her family.”

In other words, Timishev openly asserts that Daurbekov, as a father, had the right to take his daughter’s life, even though he loved her: “What father doesn’t love his daughter? … Under the circumstances, he could not act otherwise. Zarema led an immoral life that was contrary to the customs of the Chechen people.”

Let us take a look at the immoral behavior in question: “Witness Osmanov testified that Zarema had behaved immorally, ‘I know it as I witnessed it myself. Sultan told her to wear a headscarf. The head of the republic might see her.’ She replied, ‘Let the one who said that wear the headscarf.’ There you go. An adult woman 38 years old. It is customary in our people for a woman to wear a headscarf. So his advice was quite appropriate … But she would not wear it.”

It’s the year 2013. A 38-year-old woman was killed by her own father for refusing to wear a headscarf and other similar “wrongdoings.” The prosecutor requested placing the accused into a maximum security prison for eight years. The lawyer claimed that this was too severe a punishment for a Chechen father who had killed his daughter: “A father who killed his daughter after having endured insults, the immoral behavior from her for twenty years. The father of a Muslim daughter cannot be held accountable under Article 105 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. This article should not apply to Chechens.” Timishev deeply regretted the fact that “the law was mainly adopted by deputies representing non-Chechen nationalities who had no idea about killing in such a context.” He emphasized that Chechens could not “allow our wives, sisters, daughters to lead an immoral lifestyle.”

Daurbekov’s case is a vivid example of legal practice in Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics regarding such crimes. Motives of honor in the case of the murder of a daughter by a father, a sister by a brother, or a niece by uncles, are not recognized as aggravation (as blood feud is in Russia); on the contrary, they are often considered by the court as mitigating circumstances. One of the prime examples is the case of the Ingushetia resident Magomedbashir Mogushkov, who killed his sister Yelizaveta Yevloyeva in February 2020 by stabbing her several times with a knife. The motive for the murder was the desire to “wash away the dishonor off the family.” Mogushkov was sentenced to only two years of imprisonment as the court considered that the murderer had an irresistible impulse.

Researchers presume that “the overwhelming majority of cases of ‘honor killings’ are concealed in Russia today.” There are several reasons for this. First, there is often no one to report the murder because it is committed by one of the close male family members while the rest of the family keeps silent. For example, a murdered girl’s mother, even if she had opposed the killing initially, after the murder had been committed would most likely grieve in silence not to put herself, her other daughters, or the whole family in danger.

Second, the police usually prefer not to open or investigate such cases, as police officers in the North Caucasian republics might share the views on male national honor. Therefore, they turn a blind eye to the killings. As a result, there are simply no reliable data on these killings in the North Caucasus. Many crimes might only become known through rumors among neighbors but are never officially confirmed.

Besides “honor killings,” there are many other family crimes committed against women in the region. In many cases, law enforcement officers not only assist in concealing the crimes (as murders) but are directly involved. For instance, they enable the forced return of Chechen, Dagestani, or Ingush women to their native republic who had previously fled from their homes to other regions of the country. Effectively, it is abduction. The case of Seda Suleymanova is one of so many.

Louiza Dudarkayeva was forcibly returned to Chechnya by the police. She was detained at Minsk airport when attempting to fly to Norway. The police took Khalimat Taramova from the Marem Women’s Crisis Shelter. Selima Ismailova was detained in Moscow when trying to fly to Germany, under the pretext of an alleged theft. Aminat Lorsanova was repeatedly returned to her family until she managed to escape abroad. Louiza Nazayeva was brought home to her parents by the police. Two weeks later she died supposedly from kidney failure. According to human rights activists, she was suffocated with a pillow. Her death was not investigated. Police returned Elina Ukhmanova home to her parents twice, until she finally managed to leave Russia. Fatima Zurabova, a native of Ingushetia, was detained by the police in Armenia. Fortunately, human rights activists managed to block her return to the relatives who had presented a false case of jewelry theft.

Another story, that of Marina Yandiyeva, a native of Ingushetia, is quite remarkable. In August 2016, she fled her home but was reported missing, tracked down, and forcibly returned to her family. Several years later, in October 2023, she escaped again with the help of human rights activists from NC SOS Crisis Group. However, her powerful family tried to bring her back by threatening Magomed Alamov, a Crew Against Torture (CAT) human rights activist. He gave her a ride once but was not connected to her and was unaware of her story. Chechen law enforcement officers detained his brother and refused to release him until the human rights activist returned to Chechnya. Alamov was coerced to call Marina on the telephone and ask her to return. Otherwise, the police threatened to kill him and his entire family, including minors. Nevertheless, the woman did not return. In the end, the threats against Alamov and his family stopped, but the Yandiyev family never apologized or recanted. The police did not intervene in the case and never responded to the statements of human rights activists and Marina herself. 

Another high-profile case involved four sisters from Dagestan’s escape to Georgia. They were detained by Russian border guards at the Upper Lars checkpoint and were kept there for more than ten hours under various pretexts. Allegedly, the girls had debts, they had committed theft, and they were of interest to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, FSB. Soon their relatives arrived at the checkpoint and demanded that the girls be handed to them. Due to the media coverage, the border guards had to let the four sisters of adult age into Georgia.

 Political context

In 2008, seven women’s bodies were discovered simultaneously in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the republic, commented as follows: “According to our custom if a woman is promiscuous her relatives get to kill her.” However, later he did add, “The actions of the killers cannot be justified by any traditions.” At that time, Kadyrov still had to align his public statements and actions with the Kremlin. Now, 16 years later, “Putin’s man” looks up to him less and less, having been increasingly independent and even outright audacious.

On 7 November 2023 the head of the Chechen Republic declared, “The generation that does not speak or think in the Chechen language has no future.” This is a very bold statement in the country that waged war against its neighbor under the pretext of alleged oppression of the Russian-speaking citizens and the Russian language.

On 31 December 2023, Kadyrov said, “Everyone who does not agree with our vision should leave the republic.” He added that anyone “calling for dissent in Chechnya” should be turned over to us “wherever they are,” or else “we will get rid of them in our own way.”

According to some sources, while speaking in Chechen Kadyrov was even more direct, openly calling on his supporters to retaliate with a blood feud: “It was always like this. If our ancestors did not find the culprit, their father or brother had to pay the debt with their blood. We will take the debt with blood from them. … We will shoot someone from their family so they won’t be able to renounce the guilty family member.”

It is important to emphasize that the unruliness and independence of Ramzan Kadyrov from the Kremlin are manifested both in his public speeches and in his actions. For example, on 23 March 2024, Mr. Kadyrov did not cancel solemnities in the republican parliament on the occasion of Chechnya’s Constitution Day due to the nationwide mourning for those who had died in the terror attack on the Crocus City Hall near Moscow. Moreover, in his speech, he did not mention the victims of the terrorist attack, but pronounced that Chechnya “established itself as a state”. He did not see fit to add “within Russia.” Effectively, such a statement to a great extent corresponds to reality.

Kadyrov’s Chechnya has acquired many features of a separate state, temporarily allied but not controlled by the Russian Federation. Moreover, Ramzan Kadyrov’s influence has been increasingly extended beyond the Chechen Republic, as demonstrated specifically by his son Adam’s awards in the fall of 2023. The boy received honorary awards not only in Chechnya but also in Tatarstan, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Let us remember that the 15-year-old Kadyrov’s offspring started receiving awards and public posts after it became publicly known that he had beaten the prisoner Nikita Zhuravel, convicted of burning the Quran. Adam’s father himself commented on this by saying, “Why punish him? For beating up an agent, a man who had burned the Quran? It would have been worth killing him.”

At the same time, it cannot be said that lawlessness in Chechnya breeds chaos. On the contrary, compared to many neighboring republics, such as Dagestan, Chechnya has an orderly, hierarchical, intimidated, and controlled population. A riot like the one that occurred on 29 October at the airport in Makhachkala could not possibly happen here. Simply because, unlike the people of Dagestan, the Chechen population is universally fearful. As tourists in Chechnya witness, local people are afraid to cross the road in the wrong place, let alone seek to rebel.

After the riot in Makhachkala, Ramzan Kadyrov said that in the event of any uprising, if the protesters do not respond to warning shots in the air, they should be shot in the head. He wasn’t joking. And everyone in the Republic is well aware of it.

They realize the power of the “Kremlin’s man” far beyond the Chechen Republic. The story of the abduction of Seda Suleymanova should be seen precisely in this context. It’s not just a story about patriarchal remnants of the past that still linger in the minds of many in the Chechen Republic. The story demonstrates how state structures in Chechnya indulge these remnants. The Russian authorities not only do not hinder this but eagerly cooperate with Chechen officials, helping them find and punish “perpetrators.”

The Russian government has in fact no control over Chechnya — clearer as time goes on. And the residents of Chechnya are those who mostly suffer from this — security forces abduct, torture, and kill not only Chechen women who have fled, but also gay and other LGBT people, political activists, human rights champions, and others. Every resident of the Chechen Republic is potentially at risk. What was once considered private life and not monitored can become persecuted today.

The only restraint up until recently for the Kadyrov regime has been publicity. The Chechen authorities preferred that the general public outside the republic remain unaware of all the alarming details of what was happening. So publicity served as a weapon for human rights activists. If a particular story became scandalized it could be expected that the Chechen authorities would try to stifle it, given that it did not involve Kadyrov’s family and associates.

However, lately, we see this factor is no longer working. Violence is becoming increasingly demonstrative and public. The case of Adam Kadyrov, who had beaten the prisoner Nikita Zhuravel on camera and received praise, awards, and public posts, is just the most prominent. Sadly it’s not unique.

The story of Seda Suleymanova is similar — despite the unprecedented level of publicity surrounding her case, Chechen officials have done nothing to get the general public the answers for six months.

However, Seda’s case is unique. Unlike most other cases of missing or murdered girls in the North Caucasus, we saw a very high level of publicity and a purposeful public campaign in her defense. This is likely due to a combination of factors. On one hand, the rare thing is for the runaway girl to have both a fiancé willing to convert to Islam for her sake and a friend ready to participate in illegal protests in Russia and talk to the media. Another factor is the increasing potential social clash. In Russia, both Russian and Chechen radical nationalisms are being simultaneously encouraged. Russian Nazis openly sell “an ear-cutting knife” — a torture instrument used on a suspect in the attack on the Crocus City Hall — while supporters of symmetrical views in Chechnya write numerous explicit comments online justifying the necessity of honor killings for the sake of pure Chechen blood.

All of these factors are bound to lead to conflicts. The officially proclaimed policy of friendship among nations is no longer taken seriously by anyone and is incapable of reassuring the public. In this context, it is obvious that unless a radical transformation of the entire political system in Russia takes place, there is no hope for the number of crimes against women in Chechnya to go down. Nevertheless, it’s important to maximize the publicity of such cases as of now. Global exposure to the problem is a necessary step towards a possible solution in the future.

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The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya
The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya
What is happening to women in Chechnya today? What are “honor killings” and why are they becoming more widespread? Feminist activist Mika Sargsyan gives details of Seda Suleimanova’s case and its context

Seda’s story: timeline

On 23 August 2023, a Chechen woman, Seda Suleymanova. was forcibly taken by the police from her home in St. Petersburg. She shared the accommodation with Stanislav Kudryavtsev, a resident of St. Petersburg, her fiancé. She was detained by St. Petersburg police officers, who then handed Seda over to their Chechen counterparts. The latter passed her on to her relatives in Chechnya, from whom she had fled earlier, fearing persecution and reprisal.

The pretext for the detention and transfer to Chechnya was a jewelry theft allegedly committed by the girl in the Chechen Republic. However, as soon as Seda was brought to the city of Grozny, she was denied meeting with a lawyer, and she was immediately handed over to her relatives whereas the case against her disappeared.

On 4 September Mansur Soltayev, the human rights official in the Chechen Republic, published a video in which he was walking alongside the silent Suleymanova, confirming that she was alive and “safe.” Since then, neither photos nor videos of the girl have been published, and no other evidence of her being alive has been provided, neither to the public, human rights activists, nor her fiancé and close friends. Rumors began to circulate online that her brothers and uncle had killed her.

The human rights organization NC SOS Crisis Group has been trying to get in touch with Seda Suleymanova’s family for several months. Stanislav Kudryavtsev, Seda’s fiancé, was eager to obtain consent from the girl’s family to marry her. He converted to Islam — the ceremony was documented on camera so he would be able to marry according to the religious traditions. However, the family refused to communicate in any way.

On 1 February 2024, Lena Patyayeva, Seda’s friend, had a one-person protest outside the Prosecutor’s Office building in St. Petersburg with a sign reading “Is Seda Suleymanova alive?” She was detained by police for alleged violations of anti-COVID restrictions.

On 7 February NC SOS Crisis Group stated that there were serious grounds to fear that Seda had been killed, with reference to two sources in the Chechen Republic. It was labeled a so-called “honor killing” — that is, the girl could have been killed because she had been a shame for her family by having lived independently in St. Petersburg and had planned to marry a Russian man, Stanislav Kudryavtsev. After the publication of this information, Seda Suleymanova’s close friends organized a public campaign to raise awareness of her fate and demand an investigation from the authorities of the Russian Federation.

On 9 February Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and a member of the Yabloko political party, filed an official request for the Ministry of Internal Affairs to inspect the situation in the Chechen Republic.

On 12 February NC SOS Crisis Group received a response from the Prosecutor’s Office to citizens’ appeals stating that Seda Suleymanova had voluntarily returned to Chechnya. On 13 February they launched a new campaign urging the public to send mass appeals online to the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor’s Office, and Tatiana Moskalkova, the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation. This time, the appeals included information about the possible murder of Seda Suleymanova and evidence pointing to it.

On 14 February Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Human Rights Council under the President of Russia, appealed to Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, and Igor Krasnov, the Prosecutor General, asking them to check the information about the possible murder of Seda Suleymanova.

On 21 February Valery Fadeyevev, the head of the Human Rights Council, said that the HRC would also take up the case after having received calls from journalists from Gazeta.ru and a letter from Lena Patyayeva, Seda’s friend.

On 8 March Lena Patyayeva again took to a one-person protest near the Prosecutor’s Office building. She was again detained — for 48 hours this time, with an allegation of organizing an “unauthorized mass gathering”.

NC SOS Crisis Group received over two thousand appeals as part of the campaign for online appeals to Russia’s official authorities. It recently became known that following the appeals campaign, on 25 March, a criminal case was finally initiated regarding the “disappearance of Seda Suleymanova”. But it remains unknown whether the case will be investigated or if the results presented to the public will be merely formal. According to Said Sirazhudinova, a researcher of women’s rights violations in the North Caucasus, “Chechen society will not concern itself with Seda Suleymanova’s case, as people see it as a family matter. And no one from her family will reveal what happened to her. There is no investigation and there won’t be one.” 

Seda Suleymanova’s story is sadly a typical case of crimes against women in the Chechen Republic. It should be viewed in the historical and political context of what is happening in the North Caucasus and Chechnya specifically.

Historical context: adat customary laws, pre-Islamic traditions, and “honor killings”

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when “honor killings” became common in the North Caucasus, as this topic has been little studied. It is known that some isolated cases of such killings of women by male family members occurred as early as the 19th century. In the 20th century, they were no longer isolated cases but a regular occurrence. Here’s how journalist Polina Zherebtsova describes it, as someone who spent her childhood and youth in Chechnya in the 80s and early 90s: “In my childhood, almost every family in the highlands had a story to tell about a husband or an uncle who killed his wife, or a brother who killed his sister.” The perpetrators and their like-minds in the North Caucasus republics generally justify their actions through ancient traditions and customs (adats), or, supposedly existing religious norms. It is not uncommon for commentators on the internet to justify such murders by the need to take care of the “purity of Chechen blood.” 

However, as the authors of the “Honor Killings of Women in the North Caucasus” report state, “the analysis of “honor killing” cases shows that these crimes are not based on traditions, adats customs, or Sharia norms, but on self-imposed and arbitrary personal and clan ambitions, reinforced and incited by public opinion pressure, gossip, rumors, and slander.”

Although “honor killings” are prevalent in many Islamic countries, they undoubtedly contradict Islamic norms. At least within this religion, killings are only justified by a Sharia court verdict, not as a result of vigilante justice carried out by relatives based on rumors. However, despite this obvious contradiction to Islam, men who practice such killings often justify their actions by religion.

Researchers suggest it is not uncommon for murderers to be driven by caving into the pressure of public opinion. In other words, a father or brother might not necessarily kill their daughter or sister, despite how they feel about decorum. But the extended family members or neighbors disapprove, reproach, and harass them until they or another family member decides on a murder.

Another quote from the “Honour Killings of Women in the North Caucasus” report: “In these cases, the community is responsible for the murder as people discuss, denounce, gossip, incite, and even clearly instigate the crime by making such comments as, ‘Are you not man enough? What kind of highlander are you if you put up with such behavior and haven’t killed her!’ The respondents believe that many men who committed ‘honor killings’ have heard such words.”

It is difficult for an outsider to comprehend how a person can prioritize the opinion of neighbors, the infamous concern of “what people might think,” over the life of an immediate family member. However, it is noteworthy that such susceptibility to public opinion “among their own” goes far beyond the native village. Many Chechens living in the central part of Russia or even in Europe continue to adhere to such norms. “Once they tracked down one woman in Poland, and we had to move her to another country,” says Svetlana Gannushkina. “That’s why we have to change women’s names and documents.”

This is confirmed by Polina Zherebtsova: “It’s quite easy to track down worldwide those who defy traditions — there are multi-thousand groups of Chechen, Dagestanis, and Ingush descendants on WhatsApp. The guardians of adat customs have created extensive agent networks there. Someone from their homeland drove by in a car, saw someone who would be punished in the supermarket, they instantly took a photo, reported where and when they saw that person.”

It can be assumed that such values ​​are dear to some representatives of the North Caucasian peoples in the context of nationalist ideas. Control over “their” women is often present as one of the important principles in various forms of nationalism. In this case, control is maximized, up to the extent of readiness to commit murder, and opposed to the uncontrolled, “promiscuous” women of other nationalities.

Whatever the motivations of the killers, “honor killings” occur in the North Caucasus, and their number is not decreasing. This happens, in part, because such killings in the Russian Caucasus often go unpunished.

Legal context

“How could he have put up with people’s laughing, passing him by without greeting him? Now, he is no hero, as it’s an ordinary thing: he killed his daughter. He did the right thing, no doubt.”  This remark is striking not only because it is utterly cruel but because it was made by a lawyer.

Chechen lawyer Ilyas Timishev uttered these words while talking with journalists from Mediazona. Timishev was explaining his position regarding the case of his client Sultan Daurbekov, who had strangled his daughter Zarema in 2013. Timishev openly admits, “If it were up to me, he would not get punished at all.” He sympathizes with the murderer and fully justifies him as “he was harassed as a lesser man.”

Naturally, the opinion of a lawyer as a private individual seems insignificant from a legal point of view. However, this is what Timishev said defending the accused at the trial: “The point is, Daurbekov did not take his daughter’s life, he did not kill her. We should rather say: he took her out of life so that she would not be a disgrace to herself, her father, and all her family.”

In other words, Timishev openly asserts that Daurbekov, as a father, had the right to take his daughter’s life, even though he loved her: “What father doesn’t love his daughter? … Under the circumstances, he could not act otherwise. Zarema led an immoral life that was contrary to the customs of the Chechen people.”

Let us take a look at the immoral behavior in question: “Witness Osmanov testified that Zarema had behaved immorally, ‘I know it as I witnessed it myself. Sultan told her to wear a headscarf. The head of the republic might see her.’ She replied, ‘Let the one who said that wear the headscarf.’ There you go. An adult woman 38 years old. It is customary in our people for a woman to wear a headscarf. So his advice was quite appropriate … But she would not wear it.”

It’s the year 2013. A 38-year-old woman was killed by her own father for refusing to wear a headscarf and other similar “wrongdoings.” The prosecutor requested placing the accused into a maximum security prison for eight years. The lawyer claimed that this was too severe a punishment for a Chechen father who had killed his daughter: “A father who killed his daughter after having endured insults, the immoral behavior from her for twenty years. The father of a Muslim daughter cannot be held accountable under Article 105 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. This article should not apply to Chechens.” Timishev deeply regretted the fact that “the law was mainly adopted by deputies representing non-Chechen nationalities who had no idea about killing in such a context.” He emphasized that Chechens could not “allow our wives, sisters, daughters to lead an immoral lifestyle.”

Daurbekov’s case is a vivid example of legal practice in Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics regarding such crimes. Motives of honor in the case of the murder of a daughter by a father, a sister by a brother, or a niece by uncles, are not recognized as aggravation (as blood feud is in Russia); on the contrary, they are often considered by the court as mitigating circumstances. One of the prime examples is the case of the Ingushetia resident Magomedbashir Mogushkov, who killed his sister Yelizaveta Yevloyeva in February 2020 by stabbing her several times with a knife. The motive for the murder was the desire to “wash away the dishonor off the family.” Mogushkov was sentenced to only two years of imprisonment as the court considered that the murderer had an irresistible impulse.

Researchers presume that “the overwhelming majority of cases of ‘honor killings’ are concealed in Russia today.” There are several reasons for this. First, there is often no one to report the murder because it is committed by one of the close male family members while the rest of the family keeps silent. For example, a murdered girl’s mother, even if she had opposed the killing initially, after the murder had been committed would most likely grieve in silence not to put herself, her other daughters, or the whole family in danger.

Second, the police usually prefer not to open or investigate such cases, as police officers in the North Caucasian republics might share the views on male national honor. Therefore, they turn a blind eye to the killings. As a result, there are simply no reliable data on these killings in the North Caucasus. Many crimes might only become known through rumors among neighbors but are never officially confirmed.

Besides “honor killings,” there are many other family crimes committed against women in the region. In many cases, law enforcement officers not only assist in concealing the crimes (as murders) but are directly involved. For instance, they enable the forced return of Chechen, Dagestani, or Ingush women to their native republic who had previously fled from their homes to other regions of the country. Effectively, it is abduction. The case of Seda Suleymanova is one of so many.

Louiza Dudarkayeva was forcibly returned to Chechnya by the police. She was detained at Minsk airport when attempting to fly to Norway. The police took Khalimat Taramova from the Marem Women’s Crisis Shelter. Selima Ismailova was detained in Moscow when trying to fly to Germany, under the pretext of an alleged theft. Aminat Lorsanova was repeatedly returned to her family until she managed to escape abroad. Louiza Nazayeva was brought home to her parents by the police. Two weeks later she died supposedly from kidney failure. According to human rights activists, she was suffocated with a pillow. Her death was not investigated. Police returned Elina Ukhmanova home to her parents twice, until she finally managed to leave Russia. Fatima Zurabova, a native of Ingushetia, was detained by the police in Armenia. Fortunately, human rights activists managed to block her return to the relatives who had presented a false case of jewelry theft.

Another story, that of Marina Yandiyeva, a native of Ingushetia, is quite remarkable. In August 2016, she fled her home but was reported missing, tracked down, and forcibly returned to her family. Several years later, in October 2023, she escaped again with the help of human rights activists from NC SOS Crisis Group. However, her powerful family tried to bring her back by threatening Magomed Alamov, a Crew Against Torture (CAT) human rights activist. He gave her a ride once but was not connected to her and was unaware of her story. Chechen law enforcement officers detained his brother and refused to release him until the human rights activist returned to Chechnya. Alamov was coerced to call Marina on the telephone and ask her to return. Otherwise, the police threatened to kill him and his entire family, including minors. Nevertheless, the woman did not return. In the end, the threats against Alamov and his family stopped, but the Yandiyev family never apologized or recanted. The police did not intervene in the case and never responded to the statements of human rights activists and Marina herself. 

Another high-profile case involved four sisters from Dagestan’s escape to Georgia. They were detained by Russian border guards at the Upper Lars checkpoint and were kept there for more than ten hours under various pretexts. Allegedly, the girls had debts, they had committed theft, and they were of interest to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, FSB. Soon their relatives arrived at the checkpoint and demanded that the girls be handed to them. Due to the media coverage, the border guards had to let the four sisters of adult age into Georgia.

 Political context

In 2008, seven women’s bodies were discovered simultaneously in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the republic, commented as follows: “According to our custom if a woman is promiscuous her relatives get to kill her.” However, later he did add, “The actions of the killers cannot be justified by any traditions.” At that time, Kadyrov still had to align his public statements and actions with the Kremlin. Now, 16 years later, “Putin’s man” looks up to him less and less, having been increasingly independent and even outright audacious.

On 7 November 2023 the head of the Chechen Republic declared, “The generation that does not speak or think in the Chechen language has no future.” This is a very bold statement in the country that waged war against its neighbor under the pretext of alleged oppression of the Russian-speaking citizens and the Russian language.

On 31 December 2023, Kadyrov said, “Everyone who does not agree with our vision should leave the republic.” He added that anyone “calling for dissent in Chechnya” should be turned over to us “wherever they are,” or else “we will get rid of them in our own way.”

According to some sources, while speaking in Chechen Kadyrov was even more direct, openly calling on his supporters to retaliate with a blood feud: “It was always like this. If our ancestors did not find the culprit, their father or brother had to pay the debt with their blood. We will take the debt with blood from them. … We will shoot someone from their family so they won’t be able to renounce the guilty family member.”

It is important to emphasize that the unruliness and independence of Ramzan Kadyrov from the Kremlin are manifested both in his public speeches and in his actions. For example, on 23 March 2024, Mr. Kadyrov did not cancel solemnities in the republican parliament on the occasion of Chechnya’s Constitution Day due to the nationwide mourning for those who had died in the terror attack on the Crocus City Hall near Moscow. Moreover, in his speech, he did not mention the victims of the terrorist attack, but pronounced that Chechnya “established itself as a state”. He did not see fit to add “within Russia.” Effectively, such a statement to a great extent corresponds to reality.

Kadyrov’s Chechnya has acquired many features of a separate state, temporarily allied but not controlled by the Russian Federation. Moreover, Ramzan Kadyrov’s influence has been increasingly extended beyond the Chechen Republic, as demonstrated specifically by his son Adam’s awards in the fall of 2023. The boy received honorary awards not only in Chechnya but also in Tatarstan, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Let us remember that the 15-year-old Kadyrov’s offspring started receiving awards and public posts after it became publicly known that he had beaten the prisoner Nikita Zhuravel, convicted of burning the Quran. Adam’s father himself commented on this by saying, “Why punish him? For beating up an agent, a man who had burned the Quran? It would have been worth killing him.”

At the same time, it cannot be said that lawlessness in Chechnya breeds chaos. On the contrary, compared to many neighboring republics, such as Dagestan, Chechnya has an orderly, hierarchical, intimidated, and controlled population. A riot like the one that occurred on 29 October at the airport in Makhachkala could not possibly happen here. Simply because, unlike the people of Dagestan, the Chechen population is universally fearful. As tourists in Chechnya witness, local people are afraid to cross the road in the wrong place, let alone seek to rebel.

After the riot in Makhachkala, Ramzan Kadyrov said that in the event of any uprising, if the protesters do not respond to warning shots in the air, they should be shot in the head. He wasn’t joking. And everyone in the Republic is well aware of it.

They realize the power of the “Kremlin’s man” far beyond the Chechen Republic. The story of the abduction of Seda Suleymanova should be seen precisely in this context. It’s not just a story about patriarchal remnants of the past that still linger in the minds of many in the Chechen Republic. The story demonstrates how state structures in Chechnya indulge these remnants. The Russian authorities not only do not hinder this but eagerly cooperate with Chechen officials, helping them find and punish “perpetrators.”

The Russian government has in fact no control over Chechnya — clearer as time goes on. And the residents of Chechnya are those who mostly suffer from this — security forces abduct, torture, and kill not only Chechen women who have fled, but also gay and other LGBT people, political activists, human rights champions, and others. Every resident of the Chechen Republic is potentially at risk. What was once considered private life and not monitored can become persecuted today.

The only restraint up until recently for the Kadyrov regime has been publicity. The Chechen authorities preferred that the general public outside the republic remain unaware of all the alarming details of what was happening. So publicity served as a weapon for human rights activists. If a particular story became scandalized it could be expected that the Chechen authorities would try to stifle it, given that it did not involve Kadyrov’s family and associates.

However, lately, we see this factor is no longer working. Violence is becoming increasingly demonstrative and public. The case of Adam Kadyrov, who had beaten the prisoner Nikita Zhuravel on camera and received praise, awards, and public posts, is just the most prominent. Sadly it’s not unique.

The story of Seda Suleymanova is similar — despite the unprecedented level of publicity surrounding her case, Chechen officials have done nothing to get the general public the answers for six months.

However, Seda’s case is unique. Unlike most other cases of missing or murdered girls in the North Caucasus, we saw a very high level of publicity and a purposeful public campaign in her defense. This is likely due to a combination of factors. On one hand, the rare thing is for the runaway girl to have both a fiancé willing to convert to Islam for her sake and a friend ready to participate in illegal protests in Russia and talk to the media. Another factor is the increasing potential social clash. In Russia, both Russian and Chechen radical nationalisms are being simultaneously encouraged. Russian Nazis openly sell “an ear-cutting knife” — a torture instrument used on a suspect in the attack on the Crocus City Hall — while supporters of symmetrical views in Chechnya write numerous explicit comments online justifying the necessity of honor killings for the sake of pure Chechen blood.

All of these factors are bound to lead to conflicts. The officially proclaimed policy of friendship among nations is no longer taken seriously by anyone and is incapable of reassuring the public. In this context, it is obvious that unless a radical transformation of the entire political system in Russia takes place, there is no hope for the number of crimes against women in Chechnya to go down. Nevertheless, it’s important to maximize the publicity of such cases as of now. Global exposure to the problem is a necessary step towards a possible solution in the future.

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