Putin honors Chechen leader who praised Nemtsov suspect
MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed a state award Monday on the leader of Chechnya, the North Caucasus strongman who hailed the suspected killer of an opposition politician as a "true patriot."
Documents posted on the Kremlin website Monday listed Ramzan Kadyrov as a recipient of the Order of Honor, which is given in recognition of achievements in public life.
Kadyrov drew criticism Sunday from government opponents after praising Zaur Dadayev, a Chechen suspect in the murder of Kremlin foe Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov said Dadayev was a "deeply religious man" who was committed to Russia but had been offended by Nemtsov's comments after the attack on French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
While opposition figures have blamed the Russian government for being behind the killing of Nemtsov, Russia's Investigative Committee has suggested Islamic extremism as a possible motive for the slaying.
Dadayev was in a Moscow court Sunday with four other suspects in connection with the shooting of Nemtsov, who was gunned down as he walked across a bridge near the Kremlin on Feb. 27. Two of the suspects, including Dadayev, were charged with murder, while three others were remanded to jail pending charges, which must be filed within 10 days.
All five suspects are from Chechnya or other parts of the restive North Caucasus, according to Russian news agencies.
Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic since 2007, has been widely criticized by human rights groups for violence against dissidents, including abducting and killing them. But he has earned gratitude from Putin for his vehement loyalty to the Kremlin and for relentlessly crushing the Islamic insurgency against Moscow's rule.
Chechnya suffered two wars over the past two decades between Russian forces and separatist rebels increasingly under the sway of fundamentalist Islam. While working to crush radical religious movements, Kadyrov has himself imposed many Islamic rules on Chechnya, including demanding that women wear headscarves.
In his statement, Kadyrov also praised a man called Beslan Shavanov as a "brave warrior." Russian news reports Sunday cited unnamed sources as saying a man by that name was also a suspect in the Nemtsov case, but had killed himself with a grenade after police blocked his apartment in Chechnya's capital Grozny.
There was no official comment from Moscow on the reports.
Shavanov's uncle, Movsud Tovkhagov, told The Associated Press by phone that his nephew had traveled to Moscow to treat stomach problems on Feb. 20 and had returned a week later to Chechnya.
"I am 100 percent sure that suspicions that my nephew (participated in) the murder of Nemtsov have no basis," he said.
Tovkhagov said that he didn't know the details of Shavanov's death, but said the family had been told by authorities that his body was being held by the Investigative Committee. He said that Shavanov was working for the Chechnyan Interior Ministry at the time of his death.
Putin also granted a medal for "services to the motherland" to Andrei Lugovoi, who British police accuse of poisoning former security services agent Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006.
Lugovoi, who was among several dozen who received state awards Monday, denies that charge and Russia has flatly refused to consider extraditing him and fellow suspect Dmitry Kovtun to face trial in Britain.
Since Litvinenko's death, Lugovoi has carved out a political career, becoming a member of parliament with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
Musa Sadulayev in Grozny, Russia contributed reporting.