In Background, Russia

By Alexander Mercouris, published in Russia Insider, March 15, 2015

There are no grounds to suspect a cover-up and evidence of an Islamist motive for the murder is compelling.  The attempts to cast doubt on the conduct of the investigation have an obvious political motive and do not further the cause of justice.

The arrest of several men in connection with the Nemtsov murder and the disclosure that one of them has admitted to his role in the murder has been greeted with skepticism by all those who have their own theory about the murder – which is to say by just about everybody.

This negative reaction spreads across the whole spectrum, from those who believe the Kremlin was responsible for the murder to those who think the murder was a western or Ukrainian arranged “false flag”.

The liberal camp in Russia has been especially critical.  As evidence has emerged linking the arrested men to a possible Islamist motive, the liberal politician Ilya Yashin has branded the Islamist theory “nonsensical” and this has been repeated ad nauseam by those with liberal anti-government views both in Russia and the West.

Meanwhile we have had the first attempt to interfere with – or more properly to sabotage – the official investigation with a representative of the liberal dominated Presidential Human Rights Council claiming that Zaur Dadayev, the chief suspect, has retracted his confession, claiming he was induced to make it and had previously been tortured.

In my two previous pieces about the murder (here and here), I resisted the temptation to theorise about who might be responsible. Sufficient evidence to do so in my opinion did not exist.  All theories that have appeared to date derive from speculations based on theories of motive.  That makes them no more than guesswork.

There is no greater misconception about criminal investigation than the widespread belief that the solution to a murder can be found through an attempt to guess the murderer’s motive.  Usually that involves looking for someone who supposedly benefits from the murder (“cui bono”).

Sometimes that can work, for example in a murder for a legacy or within a family.   However where the murderer has no connection to the victim, this approach amounts to an attempt to enter the murderer’s mind, which given how difficult that is, all but guarantees failure.

In the Nemtsov case, this fallacy has led to theories that simply reflect the political prejudices of those who invent them. Thus, supporters of the government are sure the motive for Nemtsov’s murder “must have been” to destabilise Russia, whilst opponents of the governments are sure the motive of the murder “must have been” to eliminate one of the government’s opponents, either because he had become dangerous or, more nebulously, in order to create a “climate of fear”.

In all cases, those who hold these theories look for suspects who correspond with the sort of murderers required by these theories rather than to the murderers suggested by the actual facts of the case.

Let me first make an obvious point, though one which so far as I know no one else has made until now. This is, if a well-known liberal politician who had made comments supporting Charlie Hebdo and who had given a radio interview making critical comments about Islam had been murdered in the identical way in any other European capital a few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the universal assumption would have been that he had fallen victim to Islamist violence.  The only reason this did not happen in Nemtsov’s case is because his murder happened in Russia.

This point in itself provides sufficient cause to challenge Yashin’s claim that an Islamist motive for this murder is “nonsensical”.

As it happens, what we actually know of Dadayev’s actions before the murder are consistent with an Islamist motive connected to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Dadayev is known to be a devout Muslim.  His friend Ramzan Kadyrov says he was profoundly shocked by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Dadayev resigned from the Interior Ministry, apparently unexpectedly, on 23rd December 2014, suggesting a sudden decision, a fact that appears to point to a personal crisis that caused him to doubt the life he had been leading up to then.  That is, of course, common with individuals who get drawn into the world of militant jihadist Islam.

Two weeks later, on 7th January 2015, the attack on Charlie Hebdo took place.  On the same day, Nemtsov made the first of three public comments about the attack.  The Moscow Times has helpfully put them all together:

“The tragedy with the killing of 12 journalists of Charlie Hebdo magazine has shocked all normal people. My condolences to the families and loved ones of the innocently slain journalists. When Russia’s Council of Muftis calls the actions of the publication’s journalists a provocation and a sin, it is justifying the terrorists.” (Facebook, Jan. 7)

“Tolerance ends there where violence begins. Many in Europe do not understand this. As a result, [French right-wing politician Marine] Le Pen will win.” (Facebook, Jan. 8)

“Since the dawn of time, people have been killed for their beliefs. Romans crucified Jesus and persecuted Christians, and during the Middle Ages hundreds of thousands of people were burned alive on the bonfires of the Inquisition. … Now we are witnessing a medieval Islamic inquisition. Centuries will pass and Islam will mature, and terrorism will become a thing of the past.” (Ekho Moskvy, Jan. 9)

It seems that in the same Ekho Moskvy radio interview of 9th January 2015, Nemtsov also criticised Dadayev’s friend and former chief the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for comments Kadyrov had made the same day denouncing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

This sequence of events is consistent with a religious man undergoing an emotional crisis, who first resigns from a post that no longer seems to him consistent with his religious conscience, and who then turns to violence under the pressure of external events.  The six weeks between these events and the murder would be about the length of time someone like Dadayev would need to assemble his team and plan the murder.

The fact that Nemtsov’s comments about Charlie Hebdo appear mild to some in no way disproves this.  I have already mentioned the inherent difficulty involved in trying to enter into the mind of a murderer.  This becomes much greater when the murderer is a religious fanatic in the throws of a personal emotional crisis.  What might appear mild to most people might not appear mild to such a person, particularly if he has a predisposition to violence and especially if he is already prejudiced against his victim.

Dadayev’s behaviour following his arrest is also consistent with an Islamist motive.  As one might expect of a person who had committed murder for such a motive, he quickly confessed and on the occasion of his one court appearance made what appears to have been an Islamist hand-signal and a brief declaration of his love for the Prophet.

One of Dadayev’s alleged accomplices is said to have blown himself up, which is also consistent with the known behaviour of militant jihadists, many of whom prefer death or “martyrdom” to surrender.

As for Kadyrov’s now notorious Instagram message, heaping praise on Dadayev and declaring that Dadayev would never act against Russia, far from this having any of the complex political motives attributed to it, it looks like the standard expression of bafflement one frequently comes across after acts of jihadist violence, with friends and relatives of the perpetrator struggling to relate what happened to the person they think they know.

To set the facts out in this way does not prove the Islamist motive.  It is simply one possible reading of the known facts. Until the evidence against Dadayev and the other people who have been arrested is made public, it is impossible to say confidently whether or not they are guilty or what their motive for the murder might be.

The danger in concocting theories about crimes before the facts are known is that those who do so become committed to their theory, whatever it is, and then shape the facts as they come to light around the theory.  This all too often leads them either to distort the facts or to reject those facts that contradict their theory.

Since the arrests, this is precisely what has happened.  Since everyone has a theory about the murder, everyone doubts the official investigation because its results do not support their theory. Unfortunately, though given the state of politics in Russia entirely predictably, this has already given rise to a first attempt to undermine the investigation.

Equally predictably, the source of this attempt is the Presidential Human Rights Council, a liberal dominated body that has in the past campaigned for Khodorkovsky’s innocence and which (in a report cited by the U.S. Congress) has claimed Sergei Magnitsky was tortured.

In Khodorkovsky’s case, the European Court of Human Rights disagrees.  In Magnitsky’s case, the medical evidence casts strong doubts on claims of torture.

That the Presidential Human Rights Council has in the past taken such a dubious line in relation to two such high profile cases is reason enough to be wary of what it says in the Nemtsov case.  As will become clear, such caution is fully justified in light of what in fact happened.

A representative of the Human Rights Council visited Dadayev in prison in the role of a prison visitor and claims Dadayev told him that he was retracting his confession saying he had been induced to make it and that he had previously been tortured.

The representative of the Human Rights Council is not Dadayev’s  lawyer.  His role was to check Dadayev’s conditions of detention, not to discuss the case with him as his lawyer would do or to make public comments about things Dadayev had told him about his evidence or about the case in general.

If this representative questioned Dadayev about his confession and about whether or not he had been tortured, then he was interfering in the course of a criminal investigation and placing himself in the role of Dadayev’s lawyer, which is wrong and unethical.

If Dadayev volunteered to this representative that his confession was false and that he had been tortured, the correct response was to report the fact to Dadayev’s lawyer and to the relevant authorities and to demand an explanation and steps to protect Dadayev in the meantime. If the explanation provided was unsatisfactory or if no steps to protect Dadayev were taken, a report to that effect should have been prepared and sent to whatever higher authority is competent to handle such issues.  That might be the country’s political leadership or it could be the Procurator General’s Office or the court.  At that point, after consulting with Dadayev’s lawyer, a decision might be taken to make the report public.

Certainly the wrong thing to do would be to do what was done in this case, which is to make the whole matter public in a way that is calculated to undermine confidence in the investigation before any of these things are done.

What Dadayev is alleged to have said to the representative of the Human Rights Council therefore has no value and should be ignored since the circumstances in which it is alleged to have been said give no confidence that it can be relied upon or that it is true.

The sequel is that the investigators have denied that Dadayev has retracted his confession whilst his lawyer has said he was not pressured either psychologically or physically in any way.

That ought to be the end of this matter. Since this happened in Russia of course it won’t be.  What this episode shows is not that there is something fundamentally wrong in the investigation or that Dadayev’s confession is unreliable.  What it shows is the lengths to which some people in Russia are prepared to go in order to undermine the investigation so as to promote their particular view of the Nemtsov case.  That all but guarantees that what the representative of the Human Rights Council says Dadayev told him will continue to be brought up and repeated even though are no grounds to believe it true.

This episode should serve as a warning against accepting too readily any story about the murder, especially when it originates from a politically partial source, until evidence is produced to show it is true.  Claims that are currently circulating about a hit list said to have been provided to Putin by the FSB, or about a Major in the Chechen security forces having ordered the murder, should therefore be treated with the greatest skepticism until they are supported by facts, which enable them to be proved either false or true.

I do not know whether there was an Islamist motive to Nemtsov’s murder.  However on the face of it the possibility is plausible and is consistent with what is publicly known about the facts of the case.  Certainly the Islamist theory is not a “nonsensical” theory as Ilya Yashin says.  Whether or not it is true will become clearer as the case progresses.

The danger to justice in this case does not come from the investigation, even though this is what is often claimed.  There is nothing so far to suggest that any sort of cover-up is going on or that the investigation is not being professionally conducted or that it is going in the wrong direction.  On the contrary everything that is actually known about the investigation suggests that it is being conducted properly and well.

As the episode of Dadayev’s supposed retraction of his confession shows, the danger to justice in this case comes not from the investigation but from those who because they have a particular agenda or because they are committed to a particular theory, are intent on bending the investigation to their will, and who will stop at nothing to achieve that end, even if it leads to the investigation being pulled in the wrong direction and away from the truth.  Those who actually care about the truth and want to find out what really happened and who really killed Nemtsov and why, need to keep this fact in mind and not let themselves be diverted by false leads and fanciful tales whose effect and purpose is to lead them in a certain direction that takes them away from the truth.



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