A screen shot of Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov broadcasting on one of his YouTube channels. Abdurakhmanov, a prominent blogger critical of the Chechen authorities, survived a violent assault in his home in Swedish town of Gävle on February 26, 2020.
A screen shot of Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov broadcasting on one of his YouTube channels. Abdurakhmanov, a prominent blogger critical of the Chechen authorities, survived a violent assault in his home in Swedish town of Gävle on February 26, 2020.

Chechen blogger and government critic Tumso Abdurakhmanov: ‘I am constantly at risk’

Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a prominent blogger critical of the Chechen authorities, survived a violent assault in his home in Swedish town of Gävle on February 26, 2020. Two Russian nationals have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to a report by Agence France-Presse. CPJ documented the incident and spoke to the blogger after his release from police custody.

Abdurakhmanov, who runs two YouTube channels with more than 345,000 followers, has lived in Sweden since last year after his asylum applications were denied–first in Georgia, then in Poland. Swedish authorities also denied his asylum request and were about to send him back to Poland when the attack happened, according to Abdurakhmanov. On his blogs, he often criticizes Chechen authorities, accusing them of human rights abuses and corruption.

He tells CPJ that he ended up with no serious injuries but is still trying to process the attack.

“I have a few stitches on my head and lip,” he says.

Following the attack, the blogger was treated for injuries and spent three days in detention because Swedish police suspected him of attempting to kill his attacker. “They initially opened two cases. In one, I was a victim of attempted murder. In the other, I was a suspect who tried to kill the man who assaulted me,” he says. The latter case was closed after police interrogated him and established the facts, according to Abdurakhmanov.

Chechen authorities have threatened, intimidated, and arrested journalists for their work, according to CPJ research and reporting.

Abdurakhmanov left Russia in November 2015 and started his blog soon after. He says he received threats in Chechnya for his criticism of a close relative of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader known for his persecution of critics and crackdown on dissent, according to Human Rights Watch.

After Abdurakhmanov fled his home country, Chechen authorities accused him of fighting in Syria for the Islamic State militant group, a charge the blogger denies, saying he has never been to Syria. If returned to Chechnya, Abdurakhmanov may be imprisoned and even tortured, according to activists.

‘It was an absolute shock’

“It was around 1 pm on February 26. I was asleep in my bed after working [on my blog] throughout the night and early morning. A huge blow to my head woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I saw a man sitting atop me. He had a hammer in his hand. It was an absolute shock,” he says recalling the attack.

“After a few hits on my head, I managed to grab his hair with my left hand, and poked his eye with my right thumb. He screamed. We both fell on the floor. As we were fighting, I saw the hammer on the floor. He probably let it off. That’s when I got hold of it and started hitting him with a handle of the hammer.”

“After a few serious hits, the man spoke. It came as a surprise because he had a perfect unaccented Russian. He called me by my name,” Abdurakhmanov says.

The blogger managed to film and broadcast most of the conversation that ensued between the two.

In a video, which was taken down from YouTube but was reposted on independent regional news site Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot), the assailant said he had come from Moscow at the orders of “Abdurakhman from [Chechen capital] Grozny,” and added that “they have my mother.” He also said “they” had provided him with Abdurakhmanov’s address in Sweden.

Following the news on the attack, some online commenters expressed skepticism over the filmed confession, saying it was too good to be true. Addressing CPJ’s question about those suspicions, the blogger says that having his cell phone on him at all times is his “professional habit” that came handy during the assault.

“When I saw he was not moving as much as at the beginning, I got my phone and called my friend who then called the police. After that, I did an Instagram Live and broadcast the conversation,” Abdurakhmanov says.

‘Constantly at risk’

Abdurakhmanov has been known to CPJ since summer of 2019, when he reached out after learning about an imminent deportation from Poland, where his asylum requests had been denied. He told CPJ at the time that assassins were after him and he feared for his life.

He publicly voiced that position after the January 30, 2020, murder of another exiled Chechen blogger, Imran Aliev.

Aliev’s body was found in a hotel room in Lille, northern France, with multiple stab wounds in the chest and throat, according to reports by French daily Le Monde and news agency Agence France-Presse. CPJ looked into the murder but was unable to determine whether Aliev was killed in retaliation to his reporting. After Aliev’s assassination, Abdurakhmanov posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he claimed that he was the real target in the murder.

“I am constantly at risk,” he told CPJ.

In March 2019, Magomed Daudov, the influential speaker of Chechnya’s parliament and a close ally of Kadyrov, called Abdurakhmanov “an enemy of me and my brothers” after the blogger criticized Kadyrov’s late father, the former Chechen president, on his YouTube channel, the Associated Press reported.

“Let’s settle this according to Muslim laws,” Daudov said at the time on a live Instagram video, which later became unavailable, according to the AP report. “From now on, when you go to bed, make sure that you lock the door with a key. When you go outside, be vigilant. If you get a kick in the back, know that it’s no accident.”

CPJ has documented previous examples of Daudov publicly threatening journalists.

‘Highly professional job’

Abdurakhmanov says he hopes Swedish law enforcement will be able to answer the main questions he has about the attack.

“How did he manage to get into the building through the door with a passcode? How did he enter my apartment? The door lock was intact. He probably opened it with a key. If so, who gave it to him? But most importantly, who gave him my address that only a handful of very close friends knew?”

“All these details speak of a very high level of preparedness. It was a highly professional job,” he says.

Abdurakhmanov says he has done his own research mostly with the help of other critics of the Chechen regime around the world.

“I learned about the assassin from my wide network of contacts through Telegram [messaging app] and social media. I know his name, his marital status, his history. What he claimed about his mother [being held hostage by Chechen authorities] turned out to be a lie. His parents are well and safe in [the Russian city of] Omsk.”

The assailant, whose name Abdurakhmanov shared with CPJ, has been in police custody in Sweden, he says. On March 6, Swedish law enforcement detained a woman, also Russian citizen, in connection to the attempted murder, according to the AFP.

“We’re working on trying to establish the motive… and of course we’ll take into consideration the remarks made by the plaintiff,” prosecutor Therese Jansson told daily Svenska Dagbladet.

CPJ emailed a request for updates on the case to the Swedish security police (Säpo) that took over the investigation, according to Swedish media, but has not received a response.

‘Lubyanka is behind it’

Abdurakhmanov, who described his survival as a “mere miracle,” says he believes the Russian secret services are behind the attack.

“I received the information from my sources in Moscow that my assassination was approved at the highest level in Lubyanka,” he says, referring to a popular name of the Russian security services building in Moscow. “Like Khangoshvili’s.”

In August 2019, an exiled Chechen activist Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was murdered in Berlin, Germany. Investigative journalism website Bellingcat conducted a months-long investigation along with its partners The Insider and Der Spiegel and reported that the assassination “was planned and organized by Russia’s FSB security agency.”

Abdurakhmanov, Aliev, and Khangoshvili are among a dozen Chechens–strongman Kadyrov’s rivals, critics, and whistleblowers–who were targeted in assassination attempts in as many years in foreign countries, from Doha to Strasbourg to Kyiv to Vienna, according to a report by U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Following the attack against Abdurakhmanov, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down the incident and the attacks on critics of the Chechen leader, saying on February 27: “We are not inclined to draw parallels,” according to Russian state news agency Interfax.

Meanwhile, Abdurakhmanov continues his work despite the persistent insecurity. “My life can be described as a complete uncertainty. I live in the hope that an assassin won’t come for my soul one day. I’ll continue working on my blog. They won’t stop me,” he says.