In the wake of reports surrounding the mass detention of gay men in Chechnya, Karim Zidan looks at the links between UFC flyweight Magomed Bibulatov and Chechnya’s dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.
On a chilly Tuesday evening in Grozny, Chechnya, a select group of 20 fighters stepped into Hotel Grozny City, a towering luxury establishment presented as one of the finest tourist resorts in the recently developed city. The fighters, all handpicked by the Chechen Republic’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov to attend a private dinner, made their way through the building and entered the elevator dressed in identical outfits – tracksuits emblazoned with the Akhmat logo, doused in mismatched colors that blurred the lines between a Jackson Pollock painting and 1960’s era tie-dye.
As they rose 32 stories to the ‘Kupol’ restaurant, a view of the Sunzha river & the ‘Heart of Chechnya’ mosque took precedence amidst the impressive scenery. The chosen restaurant, enclosed within a glass dome and peppered with ethnic ornaments, helped set the scene for Kadyrov’s latest gathering of Chechnya’s elite. On this occasion, they were summoned to celebrate the departure of Magomed Bibulatov, the newly signed UFC flyweight. With a fight scheduled on April 8, Bibulatov was in the final stages of his preparation, which he planned to undertake in New Jersey.
Kadyrov arrived shortly after the fighters took their seats. The 40-year-old dictator was flanked by his loyal henchmen Adam Delimkhanov, a Chechen politician, and Magomed ‘Lord’ Daudov, the Chairman and Speaker of Chechen parliament, both of which have been accused of human rights abuses by the New York Times. They greeted the fighters, all of whom had risen mechanically to hail their leader and patron. For the next couple of hours, the vast majority of them would remain silent.
Bibulatov sat next to Kadyrov throughout the proceedings, which included discussions about his upcoming fight, his first visit to the United States a year prior, and how important a victory would be for the Chechen people. Kadyrov drove the third point home by emphasizing the traditional warrior ancestry of the Chechen people and how Bibulatov represented the modern-day version of their values. He was even named ‘Chaborz’ by the Chechen leader, which translates to bear-wolf, two of the more beloved animals in Chechnya. Even amidst a select group of people, Kadyrov’s propaganda was mandated.
Kadyrov and his group of followers ate, drank, and celebrated his future plans for combat sports domination. Yet while they laughed and lionized their leader within the confines and luxury of a five-star hotel in downtown Grozny, less fortunate souls were being rounded up and tortured in secret detention centres on the outskirts of the bright city.
Chechnya’s Homosexual Genocide
It began with several mysterious disappearances over the last week of March, 2017.
Two television reporters and a restaurant server all vanished from the public eye, with no immediate explanation for their sudden disappearance. Opposition newspapers later emerged with some chilling reports that the Chechen government was rounding up gay men to torture and execute.
Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper partially owned by final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and known for its investigative and critical reporting, revealed that “more than a hundred men” have been arrested by Chechen authorities over the last few weeks, on the suspicion of their sexual orientation. The report confirmed three victims killed to date, though it also expressed concern that others have already been executed since.
Reportedly, among those detained were local LGBT activists, Chechen broadcasters, as well as two influential members of the Chechen muftiate, the administrative body responsible for the daily operations of anything associated with Islam. The Novaya Gazeta added that none of those arrested were open about their sexual orientation, as that would have been an automatic “death sentence” in the Caucasus. Instead, it appears the authorities used social media to identify targets. Some law enforcement officers even posed as men looking for dates online to trap unsuspecting gay men.
According to Novaya Gazeta, only a handful have been released for a lack of evidence, and those who were face grave dangers within their own homes because “honor killings” remain a legal and acceptable practice in the North Caucasus. Some families may choose to kill the relative branded as gay, to wash away the family shame with blood.
Chechnya’s dictator shrugged off the report as “an April fool’s joke.” Why? Because, according to the Chechen state, gay persons are murdered by their families before the government can even take a swing at them.
“This is an absolute lie,” Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi Karimov, told Interfax. “You can not detain or harass those who simply do not exist in the country. If Chechnya had such people, the police would not have any problems with them, because their relatives would send them to the place of no return.”
This harrowing viewpoint was validated even further when a supposed pro-Kadyrov human rights activist explained that she would have refused to help any gay men who requested protection.
“I am a Chechen. I live in this society, and [being gay] is even worse than war,” said Heda Saratov, a Chechen human rights activist. “If today we are going to close our eyes to this, I believe that our society will disintegrate, and that in any case should not be allowed. I assure you that in our society, a Chechen man who respects himself, traditions, and customs, he will without any structures to pursue and do everything that these people did not have in our society. It is an evil that every Chechen will fight.”
In the days following Novaya Gazeta’s initial investigative report, the newspaper published an update with the testimonies of several victims who managed to escape, as well as the location of one of Chechnya’ secret detention facilities. According to some, once suspects were rounded up and detained, they were allowed to keep their phones. Based upon Novaya Gazeta’s reporting, it appears that Tthis was done deliberately by the Chechen authorities so that they could target whomever the suspects called. Reportedly, tThey were then tortured and electrocuted until forced to confess.
You can read a portion of one of the witness reports from Novaya Gazeta below:
The area where I was taken, it looks abandoned, but it is not. It’s more like a closed prison, whose existence is not officially one knows. In the next room sat “Syrians” – guys who are suspected of having links with those who are fighting in Syria, or their relatives, or else those who foolishly went to Syria, [became] disillusioned and fled home.
Also, several times a day we were taken and beaten – it’s called questioning, prevention, development – as you wish. The main task they had: to find out your network of contacts. How they think, if you were taken on suspicion, automatically all your circle of contacts – gays. That is why our phones are not switched off after the removal of: waiting for someone to write or call.
We cling to the hands of the wires from the stun gun and turn the handle in dynamo to generate electricity. It hurts. I endured as I could, and then lost consciousness and fell. When a current is generated and the body starts to shake, you stop to think and begin to cry. All the while you sit and hear the cries of people who have tried.
Once imported into the territory of a person, immediately start the torture. Current, beating [with] polypropylene pipes. They beat us always just below the waist – legs, thighs, buttocks and lower back. They said that we are “the dog that did not have the right to life.” Other prisoners […] scoff. They sit there for years, most have already lost hope of liberation. And much choice they have. We understood.
The above statement is one of many available online since Kadyrov’s wave of arrests began. Chechens who were lucky enough to escape their native land years earlier have begun to share their experiences growing up in a cultural prison. One such recollection suggests that intercourse between members of the same sex is common in the North Caucasus because premarital sex was prohibited through Islam. It also explained that Chechnya’s wide-scale assault on gay men began in 2009 and has persisted ever since. Those who do not forcibly disappear are likely to be killed by their own families and will later be refused a proper Islamic burial.
Despite the mounting evidence of Kadyrov’s homosexual genocide, he continues to deny any such ongoings within his republic. Even Chechen state-run media source Grozny-Inform (an extension of Kadyrov’s Instagram account) took a poll that asked readers to vote on how Kadyrov should handle the Novaya Gazeta’s reporting. As of April 6, 37% suggested that Kadyrov should “call” the journalist responsible, 34% expected an apology to the Chechen people, while 23% wanted the journalist punished for defamation. Only 4% of readers voted for the option that a “journalist has the right to express their own point of view.”
Yet while international media and human rights organizations are appalled by the recent developments in Chechnya, the UFC will showcase the debut of one of Kadyrov’s most devoted cronies on Saturday’s PPV event.
Kadyrov’s Pet Fighter
When Ramzan Kadyrov first took interest in mixed martial arts, Magomed Bibulatov was one of the first fighters to come under his patronage. Bibulatov, previously a titleholder for Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB), forfeited the belt and quickly found a home in Kadyrov’s newly minted promotion in 2015. He headlined the first Akhmat MMA show against Eduardo Felipe in March of that year, a sign of the essential role he played in Kadyrov’s plans.
Following Bibulatov’s thunderous KO victory and standout performance on the inaugural Akhmat MMA (later renamed as WFCA) show, Kadyrov expressed interest in having arguably the most talented Chechen fighter compete on an international stage. With the help of controversial manager Ali Abdel-Aziz, Bibulatov signed with World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and won their flyweight title in his sole performance under the organization’s banner.
During the lead-up to the fight, Kadyrov campaigned for Bibulatov using his social media accounts and quickly developed him into a star among Chechens. Once Bibulatov won the WSOF title, his first victory on American soil, clips of his win dominated Kadyrov’s Instagram feed. He posted a video of himself staying up late to watch Bibulatov, ducking and weaving along with every movement from the fighter. “The majority of the resident[s] of Chechnya stayed up to watch the fight,” said a caption below the video. He later called Bibulatov to congratulate him on representing the Chechen people and gifted him with a brand new Mercedes upon his return home.
This methodology of lauding fighters on his propaganda feed and raising their economic status became the foundation of Kadyrov’s combat sports diplomacy – his plan to use athletes for political gain.
A recent example of Kadyrov’s propaganda machine at work is emphasized in his latest public message to Bibulatov on his Instagram account.
“Bear wolf! When you go into the cage – count your steps. Make each of them throws off the worthless husks of emotions, thoughts and predictions. They, themselves, only ship your brain, and dilute the spirit to slow down the speed of your hands and feet. When you enter, you must feel as confident in your abilities and natural skills as a seasoned wolf and bear unflappable, capable of lightning and crushing blow … then, as much as possible to concentrate and gather together all the concentration and end the opponent slowly, but convincingly, unreservedly, but nobly. So that everyone could see that in a fair fight Chechens brilliantly defeated the opponent… so that even those who still a minute ago passionately rooted for your opponent now joyfully cried – “Akhmat – POWER !!!”
That message was broadcast to all 2.6 million followers on Kadyrov’s Instagram account, his main tool for government-produced propaganda. Not only does he use it to promote the fighters he funds, but he also employs it as a way to enhance his own personal image as a leader who upholds Chechen traditions and imposes Chechen might on the international scene. His sports diplomacy is rooted in an urgency to create state prestige through sports, and he has attempted to expand its reach by inviting the likes of Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, and a host of UFC fighters to attend his events – each a calculated effort to cement his authority and promote his political goals.
Kadyrov spent the two years following Bibulatov’s win establishing Akhmat MMA as one of most well-funded organizations outside of the UFC. Those who become a part of his roster fall under his immediate patronage. Food, training and medical expenses are all covered by the promotion. Brand new luxury vehicles are awarded to the ones who represented Kadyrov proudly and successfully, thus elevating many of them into newfound wealth and status and ensuring their loyalty for and dependency on Kadyrov. Bibulatov, one of the first to reap the benefits of associating with the MMA-loving dictator, was the blueprint for such treatment.
Given the exceptional fondness that Kadyrov shows for Bibulatov relative to the remainder of the roster, it came as little surprise when the fighter began to accompany the ruler as part of his entourage. On one occasion, Akhmat MMA president Abuzayed Vismuradov and Bibulatov were injured after their three-wheel Harley Davidson crashed into the bike that toppled over in front of them. The incident occurred after 13 bikes attempted a leisurely ride through the Caucasus mountains. The bike that toppled over belonged to the former chief of the ‘Alpha’ special forces unit and advisor to Ramzan Kadyrov, Yuri Torshin. He was found dead at the scene.
Given the company that Bibulatov keeps, as well as his elevated status as a member of the Russian elite, it isn’t difficult to deduce why the fighter continues to associate himself with Kadyrov’s regime.
“I have a very good relationship with the head of our country, Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov,” Bibulatov told BloodyElbow in 2016. “He provides comprehensive support for the Chechen athletes and so, we have everything we need to achieve the best results in MMA. I have achieved such results in this sport because of him. Wherever I perform, he always supports me.
“I am proud that I have such a brother.”
While Bibulatov may have little choice but to offer such statements about Kadyrov, his UFC debut is, nevertheless, stained in Chechen blood. The reports surrounding Kadyrov’s extermination of gay men is merely the latest of a long list of reported human rights abuses that plague the Chechen Republic. It is this author’s opinion that those associated with it, even by several degrees of separation, should be seen as accomplices to abhorrent abuse and devastation; this view should also apply to the medium that allows such characters to be showcased on their programming, in this case, the UFC.
As mainstream outlets continue to cover the Kadyrov travesty and how it relates to MMA, the UFC will be faced with a PR nightmare that could have easily been avoided. Instead, the promotion employs three Kadyrov-sponsored fighters on its roster, with a fourth potentially signing in the near future.