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Murder of Chechen critic in France raises concerns about UFC’s ties to Kadyrov

Karim Zidan delves into the latest assassination of a Chechen critic and how the bloody incident indirectly calls attention to the UFC’s longstanding relationship with Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. 

Chad Stanhope

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On January 30, 2020, Chechen blogger Imran Aliyev was found dead in a hotel room in the city of Lille, France. According to local French news agencies, the 44-year-old who was known online as Mansur Stary (Old Mansur) was found dead with multiple stab wounds – the latest critic of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov to be killed in Europe.

While it remains unclear whether Aliyev was targeted by Kadyrov’s regime, he remains the latest in a long list of Chechen critics to die a violent death abroad over the past decade. The incident draws attention to several other prominent cases involving Chechens being murdered. It also rehashes concerns about the Chechen dictator’s longstanding affiliation to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of the only sports organizations that continues to maintain ties with Kadyrov.

This article will attempt to scrutinize the promotion’s ongoing relationship with Kadyrov by assessing the dictator’s history of international violence and assassination attempts, his ceaseless human rights violations against Chechen citizens, and how the UFC plays a role in whitewashing the dictator’s reputation and distracting from his crimes.

A Bloody Trail of Assassinations

The list of assassinated Chechen critics predates Kadyrov’s tenure as the leader of Chechnya. In February 2004, former Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed by a car bomb in Doha, Qatar. Yandarbiyev served as Chechnya’s acting president in 1996-97 before fleeing to live in exile in Qatar after being wanted In Russia on charges of leading a revolt. IN the aftermath of the assassination attempt, two Russian intelligence officers were convicted by a Qatari court and handed life sentences, with the judge claiming that the assassins acted on orders from the Russian government, a charge Russian officials denied.

By February 2007, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree removing Alu Alkhanov and installing Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya’s acting leader. Within a month’s time, the Chechen parliament had approved Putin’s nomination of Kadyrov and appointed him Head of the Chechen Republic. Armed with his newfound position of political power, Kadyrov engaged in violent struggles with Chechen warlords Sulim Yamadayev and Said-Magomed Kakiyev for overall military authority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) spe Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP via Getty Images

After prevailing over Yamadayev in a series of bitter shootouts between their respective militias, Kadyrov declared Yamadayev a wanted man in Chechnya.

Then on March 28, 2009, Yamadayev was gunned down in Dubai as he was leaving his apartment and died instantly from wounds sustained during the shooting. Following a local investigation, Dubai police accused Kadyrov’s cousin and member of the Russian State Duma, Adam Delimkhanov, of ordering the assassination. While Delimkhanov denied the accusation, Interpol still issued arrest warrants for several Chechen citizens including Delimkhanov.

Yamadayev’s death came less than two months following the assassination of Kadyrov’s former bodyguard, Umar Israilov, who was shot dead in Vienna on January 13, 2009. The 27-year-old Israilov was granted asylum in Austria in 2006 and had brought a case against Kadyrov’s Chechen government to the European Court of Human Rights. He even spoke on record with The New York Times about the brutal acts committed by Kadyrov and his henchmen, including executions of illegally detained men, rape, and torture. He also claimed that Kadyrov kept a list of 300 enemies to be killed.

In 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen turned Georgian national was shot twice in the head in Berlin. The 40-year-old, who once fought with Chechnya’s separatists during the Second Chechen War, died instantly from his wounds. At the time, experts claimed that the evidence pointed to a planned assassination organized by Kadyrov.

While the number of outright assassinations has decreased over the past decade, Kadyrov continues to maintain significant influence beyond Chechnya’s borders. He does this by placing loyal assets in various countries with prominent Chechen diasporas. An example of this is Timur Dugazayev, a former boxer turned manager who refers to himself on his Instagram account as “Kadyrov’s representative in Germany.”

From left to right: Timur Dugazayev, AbuZayed Vismuradov, Abdel-Kerim Edilov

Over the past few years, Dugazayev has taken an active role in mediating relations between Kadyrov and the Chechen diaspora in countries like Germany, where he resides. In 2015, he organized a meal for 800 Chechen refugees in one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Kiel, a port city on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast. The event took place during the holy month of Ramadan and was sponsored by Ramzan Kadyrov himself, who reportedly paid 10,000 euros to cover the costs of the food and venue. The one-off Ramadan feast made headlines in Germany, some claiming outrage over Kadyrov’s involvement, while others alluded to the self-serving nature of Kadyrov’s supposed donation.

Kadyrov continues to use Dugazayev for other self-serving political purposes, including having him organize rallies held in his honor whenever needed. In November 2015, an unknown group vandalized the inscription on a stone slab in front of a memorial for Soviet soldiers. This led Dugazayev to arrange a rally in Hamburgdemanding protection for the statues in the memorial. The former fighter used a faction of the infamous Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang with ties to Vladimir Putin, to help organize the rally on behalf of Kadyrov himself. Shortly thereafter, Dugazayev was awarded the Order of Akhmad Kadyrov medal, Chechnya’s highest honor, by Kadyrov himself. As such, it is evidently clear that Dugazayev is one of the men responsible for maintaining control of the Chechen diaspora in Europe.

The assassinations and insidious surveillance of Chechens abroad is far from the only harrowing crimes linked to Kadyrov. The Chechen dictator has also been responsible for countless atrocities committed within the republic’s borders, including the reported persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya.

In 2017, opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that over 100 Chechen men had been rounded up, interrogated, and tortured on suspicion of being gay. Three of these victims allegedly died in extrajudicial killings during interrogation. The Chechen government, as well as the Kremlin, denied the reported persecutionof LGBTQ+ people in the republic. Kadyrov himself denied the existence of gay men in Chechnya to HBO Real Sports in July 2017 before adding that if any do exist in his republic, they should be sent to “Canada” to “purify our blood.”

Kadyrov would later revive his gay pogrom in 2018 and continues to detain local citizens suspected based on their sexual orientation. This is the man that the UFC continues to associate itself with.

The UFC’s Favourite Warlord

Over the past five years, the UFC has continued to strengthen its relationship with Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

The strange bedfellows first came in contact in 2015 when UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, former heavyweight champion Frank Mir, and middleweight champion Chris Weidman attended the inaugural World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) show, the MMA promotion founded and funded by the Chechen dictator. The celebrated fighters posed alongside the warlord, danced at his dinner parties, and were paraded around for Kadyrov’s enjoyment. Several months later, Werdum – still heavyweight champion at the time – announced that he had signed an affiliation agreement with Kadyrov’s MMA fight club that consisted of frequent visits to Chechnya as an ambassador for the promotion.

”Fabricio was happy to accept what ultimately was a very lucrative offer, but this deal is not just a financial arrangement,” Werdum’s manager told MMAJunkie in 2015. “He was in Chechnya earlier this year, and he was treated like a king.”

Founded in 2015, the Akhmat MMA fight club consists of an MMA promotion and several training facilities throughout Chechnya and various other post-Soviet states. The fight club is sponsored by Kadyrov himself through his government’s budget and bears the name of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov. Fighters who are signed to the fight club’s official roster are paid monthly stipends that cover medical expenses, training costs, and travel fees. Depending on the level of success achieved, fighters are also gifted with expensive cars and other ostentatious goods.

Asked why its UFC heavyweight champion would associate himself with a Chechen warlord and his MMA offshoot, UFC Vice President of Public Relations (at the time) Dave Sholler told me in a statement for Sports on Earth that “it is important to note that UFC fighters operate as independent business partners, not employees, and that subject to their contractual commitments to UFC they are free to conduct business and to participate in activities as they choose. We do expect, however, all fighters to be mindful that their actions reflect well on themselves, the sport and the UFC organization.”

Despite the outrage at the time, the UFC went on to sign Magomed Bibulatov, a Kadyrov-affiliated fighter who was personally sponsored by the Chechen leader, in 2017. At the time, Bibulatov was coming off three consecutive victories in the WFCA and was Kadyrov’s prized fighter and representative at the time. His signing signalled a gateway for other Kadyrov-affiliated fighters to enter the UFC over the coming years.

By 2018, the UFC had at least five Chechen fighters affiliated to Kadyrov on the roster, including Abdul-Kerim Edilov, Kadyrov’s cousin and a glorified babysitter for the dictator’s children who also reportedly threatened an HBO journalist in Chechnya. Edilov parted was with the promotion in 2019, though it should be noted that the UFC’s decision to release Edilov was not based on his dangerous affiliation or penchant for threatening journalists, but at his own request. It remains evidently clear that the UFC is happy to do business with fighters linked to Kadyrov’s promotion.

UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby posing alongside US-sanctioned AbuZayed Vismuradov

The current UFC roster still has a handful of Kadyrov-affiliated fighters, including Said Nurmagomedov, Magomed Ankalaev, and Liana Jojua. There is also reason to believe that Kadyrov’s MMA fight club is on good terms with the UFC’s matchmakers. AbuZayed Vismuradov – Kadyrov’s most trusted commander and the person responsible for running his MMA promotion – posed for a picture with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. The picture, which was posted on the Akhmat MMA fight club social media pages, carried a caption claiming that the UFC and Akhmat MMA had reached a new agreement to continue signing fighters from the Chechen club

The promotion has also welcomed Kadyrov at their events on two separate occasions, dating back to the UFC’s inaugural show in Moscow in 2018. Kadyrov attended the UFC Russia show on September 15, 2018, surrounded by some of his most loyal henchmen, one of whom has been accused of torture and another of plotting an assassination.

The following year, the UFC returned to Abu Dhabi for the first time in five year with a pay-per-view show headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. And despite the UFC’s attempt to keep Kadyrov off the official broadcast, the dictator still made an on-screen cameo seated in the front row of the event alongside the UAE’s Minister of Culture, Youth, and Social Development, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan.

Despite the UFC’s continued affiliation with Kadyrov, the promotion has taken every possible measure to ignore any questions of requests for comment regarding their ongoing relationship with the menacing dictator.

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