A colleague of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition figure shot dead near the Kremlin in Moscow, has said suggestions he was killed by Islamists were nonsensical but useful for the Kremlin because they deflected accusations that officials were involved.
Speculation about an Islamist link grew after investigators charged Zaur Dadayev, a Chechen, over the killing. Dadayev is an associate of Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who said on Sunday the murder may have been in response to anger over Nemtsov’s support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
That has been met with scepticism by some of Nemtsov’s associates. They believe that the Kremlin stood to gain from the killing – though Russian officials have denied involvement – and they do not believe fanatics acting alone could have shot someone dead so close to the Kremlin.
“Our worst fears are coming true,” Ilya Yashin, the co-leader of Nemtsov’s small liberal opposition party said on Twitter late on Sunday. “The trigger man will be blamed, while those who actually ordered Nemtsov’s killing will go free.”
“Investigators’ nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov’s killing suit the Kremlin and take Putin out of the firing line,” Yashin added on Monday.
Dadayev was one of five men to appear in a Moscow court on Sunday, all from Russia’s north Caucasus region. He raised his index finger in the courtroom, a common Islamist sign, and said “I love the prophet Mohammed”, according to court reporters.
“I knew Zaur as a genuine Russian patriot,” Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram page on Sunday evening, confirming Dadayev had served in one of his battalions. “He was the deputy commander of the battalion, and one of the most fearless and courageous soldiers of the regiment.”
“Everyone who knows Zaur says he is deeply religious person and like all Muslims was very shocked by the actions of Charlie [Hebdo] and by comments supporting the printing of the caricatures,” wrote Kadyrov.
“If the court finds Dadayev guilty then by killing a person he has committed a grave crime. But I want to note that he could not do anything that was against Russia, for which he has risked his own life for many years.”
Nemtsov was shot dead on 27 February as he walked home across a bridge in the centre of Moscow, right by the Kremlin. He was shot four times and the killer escaped in a car, with many of Nemtsov’s allies noting the professional nature of the murder and raising suspicions about how such a brazen killing could take place.
Many of Nemtsov’s allies have blamed the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, personally for the murder. Some suggested Putin’s rhetoric about a “fifth column” inside Russia had created an atmosphere of hatred that may have been seized on by radical nationalists, while others implied Putin may have ordered the killing. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, said the only way to disprove the Kremlin’s involvement was if the case was investigated properly and solved.
Putin has said he has taken “personal control” of the investigation, and his spokesman announced hours after the killing that the assassination had been “100% provocation” designed to make Russia look bad.
The arrests were announced on Saturday by Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s security service, the FSB. Information about the suspects, their backgrounds and their alleged role in the murder of Nemtsov remains hazy. Many were detained in Ingushetia but details about how and by whom the detentions took place were scarce.
Some analysts suggested the confusion may be down to the many agencies working on the investigation, with some possibly trying to solve the crime and others striving to cover it up.
Russian news agencies said a 30-year-old man who was a suspect in the Nemtsov murder had blown himself up with a grenade when police tried to detain him in Grozny, the Chechen capital – an event liable to raise suspicions. Kadyrov said the man’s name was Beslan Shavanov, and said he was also a “brave warrior”.
In court, Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev were charged with murder, while three others – Shagid Gubashev, Tamerlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhayev – were not formally charged but remanded in custody pending further investigation. All except Dadayev protested their innocence. Esterkhanov said he was at work at the time of the murder and had witnesses who could prove it.
The men were marched in and out of the Moscow courtroom with their heads bowed and arms handcuffed behind their backs. Once inside the defendants’ cage, they attempted to hide their faces from television cameras using their hoods, collars or sheets of paper.
State television gave extensive coverage to the court cases, and correspondents suggested the men could have killed Nemtsov over his support for the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo.
Later, Kadyrov’s statement seemed to bear out that this is the line investigators will pursue. Nemtsov had written a brief blogpost criticising the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
Yashin has said he plans to continue compiling a report on the involvement of Russian soldiers in the conflict in Ukraine, which Nemtsov had been working on before his murder.