When news broke last August that a former Chechen rebel had been gunned down in broad daylight in Berlin, Mukhamad Abdurakhmanov feared he would be next. “I felt that Germany just isn’t safe any more for people like me,” he said.
Mr Abdurakhmanov is one of thousands of Chechens who have left their homeland in the Northern Caucasus, fleeing the increasingly brutal regime of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Many thought they had escaped Mr Kadyrov’s clutches for good and found a safe haven in Europe. The murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian national of Chechen ethnicity, shattered that hope.
Chechens living abroad — especially former guerrillas who battled Russian troops during Chechnya’s wars of independence — have long been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. But Khangoshvili’s murder was something new — a brazen attack in a busy Berlin park that seemed calculated to strike terror into the Chechen community.
“It was an attempt to intimidate all Chechens living in exile,” said Frank Schwabe, a German MP who is the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on human rights in the North Caucasus. “They wanted to send the message that ‘we will get all of you, even if you live abroad’.”
The case has tipped Germany and Russia into a diplomatic crisis. This month German federal prosecutors said they suspected Russian or Chechen involvement in the murder. Berlin expelled two employees of the Russian embassy over Moscow’s failure to co-operate in the investigation and Moscow has declared two German diplomats persona non grata.
Russia denied any involvement in the Khangoshvili affair, but President Vladimir Putin said the victim was a “cruel and bloodthirsty person” who was “one of the organisers of explosions in the Moscow metro”.
The death of Khangoshvili came at a time of growing alarm at the Kremlin’s campaign of violence against its enemies abroad. The most famous casualties have been Russian — Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who narrowly survived a brush with the novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, last year, and Alexander Litvinenko, the dissident who died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006.
But Chechens are also being targeted. Umar Israilov, for example, a former bodyguard of Mr Kadyrov who became a fierce critic of his regime, was shot and killed in Vienna in 2009. Mansur Sadulaev, an opposition activist who has lived in exile since 2012, received so many death threats while seeking asylum in Austria that he was put under 24-hour police protection.
The head of Vayfond, an aid organisation for Chechen exiles, Mr Sadulaev served two years in jail for fighting against the Russians in the 2000s. But he fled abroad upon his release after unidentified gunmen began dropping by his home unannounced. “If you’re already on their radar screen it’s only a question of time before they kill you or lock you up,” he said.
Though never a fighter, Mukhamad Abdurakhmanov, whose brother Tumsu is a well-known blogger and Kadyrov critic, has also experienced threats to his life. “In Chechnya there is collective responsibility — a brother answers for his brother,” he said.
Chechnya’s descent into lawlessness under Mr Kadyrov, who rules the mainly Muslim province as his personal fiefdom, has been well documented.
Yet despite this, Chechen refugees are rarely awarded asylum in Germany. Of the 41,000 Chechens whose cases were adjudicated between 2014 and the end of August this year, only around 1,800 received some form of refugee status.
“The problem is that the authorities in Germany and Europe tend to believe Russia when it says that the Chechens are somehow linked to Islamic State or other terrorist organisations, even when there’s no evidence for that,” said Mr Sadulaev.
Mr Schwabe said a key reason the asylum recognition rate is so low is “because it’s often difficult to tell victims and perpetrators apart”. “Some of the refugees may have killed other people in war,” he said. “Khangoshvili himself was, after all, a former guerrilla.”
An increasing number of failed asylum-seekers are now being sent back to Russia, where German authorities insist they can seek refuge, even if they cannot live safely in Chechnya.
But “that’s not necessarily true,” said Mr Schwabe. “I think the whole current practice of deporting Chechens back to Russia needs to be reassessed,” he added.
Mukhamad Abdurakhmanov also dismissed the idea he would be safe elsewhere in Russia. “If I were sent back, I would immediately be arrested in the airport and handed over to Kadyrov’s guys,” he said.
Vayfond’s representative in Germany, Mr Abdurakhmanov had his asylum request rejected by the German authorities in 2017. He has now reapplied, hoping the Khangoshvili killing has changed official attitudes.
His case has been complicated, however, by the hefty fine that was recently imposed on him by a Bavarian court for reposting a Deutsche Welle article on Facebook illustrated with a picture showing Islamic State fighters. He has appealed.
“I have given the authorities plenty of evidence of political persecution,” he said. Yet he’s not particularly optimistic about his chances. “I don’t have any illusions,” he said.