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Will US sanctions against Kadyrov for ‘gross violations of human rights’ impact UFC ties?

Karim Zidan delves into the U.S. State Department’s decision to sanction Ramzan Kadyrov and whether this will impact the Chechen dictator’s combat sports related interests. 

Chad Stanhope

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On July 20, 2020, the United States Department of State announced its decision to sanction Ramzan Kadyrov, the notorious Head of the Chechen Republic within the Russian Federation, for “gross violations of human rights.”

According to the official press release, Kadyrov is publicly designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020 due to “extensive credible information that Kadyrov is responsible for numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings.”

The sanctions, which include financial limitations and visa bans, also apply to Kadyrov’s spouse, Medni Kadyrova, and his daughters Aishat Kadyrova and Karina (aka Khadizhat) Kadyrova. Washington also encouraged other countries to take similar actions against Kadyrov and his family.

“Today’s action serves to notify Mr. Kadyrov that his involvement in gross violations of human rights has consequences, both for him and his family, and that the United States is committed to using all the tools at our disposal to ensure accountability for those who engage in this abhorrent behavior,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

This is not the first time that the United States has used sanctions to punish Kadyrov and his associates. In 2017, the U.S Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) enforced economic sanctions under the Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses ranging from “torture” to “extrajudicial killings.”

Human rights organizations and international watchdogs have repeatedly linked Kadyrov and his cronies to abysmal abuses against dissidents, LGBTQ+ individuals, journalists, and activists who oppose Kadyrov’s corrupt dictatorship. HBO recently produced a documentary titled “Welcome to Chechnya: Inside the Russian Republic’s Deadly War on Gays,” which documented Chechnya’s anti-gay purge that has been taking place in the republic since 2017.

The latest press release also cited the Moscow Mechanism rapporteur — a fact-finding mission invoked by the OSCE, the U.S., and 15 other nations into Kadyrov’s abuses — found that “harassment and persecution, arbitrary or unlawful arrests or detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions” had taken place and that “a climate of impunity” surrounded these events.

“Along with many other likeminded nations, the United States has repeatedly raised concerns about reports of Mr. Kadyrov’s violations publicly and privately,” Sec. Pompeo added. “We have already imposed economic sanctions on Mr. Kadyrov and several of his associates, using multiple authorities. We are concerned that Mr. Kadyrov is now using the excuse of the coronavirus pandemic to inflict further human rights abuses on the people of the Chechen Republic.”

Kadyrov has since responded to the latest sanctions on his Telegram channel by posting a picture of himself holding two machine guns along with the caption, “Pompeo, we accept the fight! This is going to be interesting!”

Beyond Kadyrov’s despotic behaviour and well-documented human rights abuses, the Chechen dictator is also a sports fanatic who uses athletes as a tool for domestic and foreign diplomacy. Kadyrov uses sports to bolster his reputation as a benevolent ruler and fun-loving leader. During the 2018 World Cup, Kadyrov hosted the Egyptian national team and posed in a photo-op with celebrated striker Mohamed Salah in front of a large orchestrated crowd. It was Kadyrov’s chance to rub shoulder with the most popular Muslim athlete in the world. Kadyrov has also embraced mixed martial arts and boxing as tools for diplomacy and sportswashing, even going so far as to start his own promotion and fight club known as Akhmat MMA.

Head of Chechnya Kadyrov votes in 2020 Russian constitutional referendum Photo by ChGTRK\TASS via Getty Images

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.

The Akhmat MMA fight club is operated by Abuzayed Vismuradov, a colonel considered to be one of the most powerful men in Chechnya. Known by his nom de guerre ‘Patriot’, Vismuradov once fought in the Chechen wars against Russia alongside Kadyrov himself, before being elevated to commander of the Chechnya’s Special Forces, the ‘Terek’ Chechen SWAT unit, as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail. Kadyrov’s decision to place one of his most influential security figures in charge of his MMA promotion and fight club suggests that the Akhmat fight club is likely an extension of Kadyrov’s own government.

Through his promotion, Kadyrov has been able to establish relationships with UFC fighters, managers, and even the promotion’s own matchmakers. In 2015, former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum signed a “lucrative” deal to become an ambassador for Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club. Kadyrov has since hosted countless UFC fighters in Chechnya, including former champions Frankie Edgar, Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Alexander Gustafsson and current UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. He has also hosted BJJ legend Renzo Gracie, and boxing greats Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson. These associations are part of the dictator’s soft power strategy to enhance his public image as a masculine leader and to whitewash his human rights record.

Over the past few years, a handful of the fighters from the Kadyrov-backed Akhmat MMA fight club have signed UFC contracts and competed for the world’s leading promotion. Those fighters included Abdul-Kerim Edilov, a light-heavyweight prospect who moonlights as Kadyrov’s babysitter for his three young sons and who reportedly threatened an HBO journalist in Chechnya.

The most recent example of a Kadyrov-linked fighter competing for the UFC is Liana Jojua, who defeated Diana Belbita by submission at UFC on ESPN: Kattar vs. Ige on July 15 at Fight Island. In the aftermath of her victory, Akhmat MMA president Abuzayed Vismuradov — who himself has been implicated as a leading figure in the anti-gay purge — took to social media to commend Kadyrov for his support and for allowing his fighters to fight and win at world-class arenas.”

UFC Fight Night: Belbita v Jojua Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

While it remains unclear whether the latest round of sanctions will impact Kadyrov’s ties to the UFC, it is worth noting that the UFC has welcomed Kadyrov to 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.

There is also reason to believe that Kadyrov’s MMA fight club is on good terms with the UFC’s matchmakers. In 2018, Vismuradov posed for a picture with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby and claimed that the UFC and Akhmat MMA had reached a new agreement to continue signing fighters from the Chechen club.

The current UFC roster still has a handful of Kadyrov-affiliated fighters, including Said Nurmagomedov, Magomed Ankalaev, and Liana Jojua.

Neither the UFC nor the U.S. Department of State have responded to a request for comment at this time.

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