How Chechnya’s Leader Got Banned from Facebook and Instagram (The New Yorker)

How Chechnya’s Leader Got Banned from Facebook and Instagram

In a land far away, there lives a tyrant who uses social media to
communicate with his people and the rest of the world. He posts pictures of himself with self-aggrandizing captions, assertions that he has the
people’s support, pictures of himself kissing babies or petting horses,
and, occasionally, threats of violence against his perceived enemies. Or
so he did, until Instagram blocked his account last month.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been wielding power in Chechnya for
more than twelve years, nearly seven of them as President of the
republic, which is part of the Russian Federation. Backed both
politically and financially by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov
has cracked down on all forms of dissent. He has wielded a private army
against remaining separatists in Chechnya. Human-rights activists and
journalists have disappeared or turned up dead. Secular people seem to
have vanished. Most recently, as I reported for The New Yorker last summer, gay men have been rounded up and tortured before
being returned to their families, who are expected to kill
them. Kadyrov’s men have also been implicated in the murders of Russian
opposition figures outside of Chechnya, but courts have stopped far
short of tracing the crimes to the Chechen President himself: Russia
prefers to keep Kadyrov as an attack dog, risky as that strategy may be.

In Chechnya, Kadyrov is all-powerful and ever-present. With a reported
population of less than a million and a half (the actual population is likely much smaller—Chechen statistics are notoriously unreliable, and its voter rolls famously padded), Chechnya is a small place where everything
is personal. Large family clans wield power over their members, and
Kadyrov presides over all of them. It is not unusual for Kadyrov to
publicly dress down a blogger for, say, complaining about food prices,
or to reprimand a man because his teen-age daughter is reported to be
insufficiently pious.

A twenty-five-year-old Chechen man who asked to be identified only as
Arsen, a pseudonym, told me he used to like Kadyrov. “I thought he was
keeping us safe,” he said. In late February of last year, Arsen was
among the first gay men rounded up in what became a string of arrests
and killings. At first, he told me, he was being held and tortured in an
apartment. He was conjuring a plan to jump out the second-floor window
and ask for help from the police—Kadyrov would surely save him. But
then, Arsen said, he was being beaten with a boot when he heard one of
his captors say to another, “The commander-in-chief says not to hit them
on the faces. He says they should be intact.” There was only one
commander-in-chief in Chechnya, and this was when, Arsen said, he knew
that Kadyrov would not save him. Later, he recognized among his captors
a highly placed officer from Kadyrov’s private force.

A few weeks after Arsen’s ordeal, an American human-rights activist, who
asked not to be identified, was trying to devise a strategy for fighting
Kadyrov, aside from helping people escape and grieving those who didn’t.
Conventional sanctions, including the targeted sort that policy experts
call “smart sanctions,” wouldn’t work against Kadyrov, who appears to
have no significant assets abroad and no real interest in the world
outside of Russia. He did like to boast of having three million
followers on Instagram and seven hundred and fifty thousand fans on Facebook.
(Now that his accounts are gone, these claims are impossible to verify.)
So the activist hit on the idea of getting Instagram and its parent
company, Facebook, to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts. “Getting organizations
to get on board with a public-facing campaign to get him off Instagram
totally failed,” the activist told me. “People were very concerned about
their own security, in a way that I don’t usually see with advocacy
work.” What human-rights organizations would ordinarily have conducted
in a visible and vocal manner became a behind-the-scenes campaign.

I was able to follow the activists’ clandestine efforts as they
unfolded over a few months. The campaign involved lobbying the Trump
Administration to place Kadyrov, who had long been rumored to be on a
secret sanctions list, on the official list of Russian citizens
sanctioned because they are believed to be responsible for gross violations of
human rights. This was not an end in itself—Washington’s sanctions list
was important for making the argument to the social networks, and for
providing them with a rationale for banning Kadyrov. On December 20th,
the Treasury Department announced a list of five new Russian citizens
facing sanctions, and Kadyrov’s name was among them. Two days later,
Kadyrov’s Instagram and Facebook accounts disappeared.

The Facebook press office has never responded to my queries about the
campaign to remove Kadyrov from its platforms, missing an opportunity to
point out that the social networks can not only be weaponized by Russian
dictators big and small but can also exercise leverage over them. The
Russian Internet-regulation agency sent a letter to Facebook demanding
to know why Kadyrov was blocked; I suspect Facebook ignored this query, as well. Kadyrov declared that he didn’t care, and would start his own
social network in Chechnya. Arsen, who has made it to Toronto as a
refugee after spending several months in hiding in Russia, was very
happy. “I had such good feelings when his account was blocked,” he told
me on the phone. “I don’t even have words for how good it felt.”

via The New Yorker

January 27, 2018 at 06:39PM

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