Who knew Russia had such crack detectives — not just fast in their investigation of the murder of Boris Nemtsov but practically clairvoyant. Within a day of the dissident’s killing on Feb. 27, they offered a bundle of possible motives, predictably ranging from a business dispute to a love affair gone wrong, but with two big surprises. For one, they ignored the possibility that Nemtsov’s conflict with the Kremlin had anything to do with the murder. And then there was the theory bizarre enough to make the victim’s friends do a double take: the sleuths suggested that some religious fanatic could have killed him for insulting Islam.
Of all the powerful figures Nemtsov had opposed, insulted and tried to bring down to earth during his two decades in politics, the Prophet Muhammad was never one of them. Vladimir Putin certainly was, and so were many of the men in the Russian President’s inner circle. But a mere 10 days after Nemtsov’s killing, investigators appear to have settled on that most far-fetched motive in the case.
The man they charged with organizing the murder on Sunday is a perfect fit for their peculiar hunch about an Islamist on the loose. Appearing before a judge that afternoon, Zaur Dadaev, a decorated officer in the Russian security services, paced behind the bars of the defendant’s cage and only said one thing to the assembled journalists: “I love the Prophet Muhammad,” he muttered, raising one finger to the heavens — a common gesture of faith for Muslims. Russian news agencies, citing the judge in the case, then claimed that Dadaev had confessed his guilt, even though he had said no such thing during the public hearing. (Five of his alleged accomplices have also been placed in custody, while a sixth reportedly blew himself up with a hand grenade when police came to arrest him on Saturday night.)
That’s when things got really weird. Dadaev’s family in his home region of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic in the south of Russia, had by that point started trying to clear his name and, in search of legal advice, his mother and sister contacted one of the region’s best-known human-rights activists, Kheda Saratova, arranging to see her on March 8.
“They called and asked for a consultation at our office in Grozny,” the capital of Chechnya, Saratova tells TIME. “It was all set. But then they called back and canceled, refused to explain anything,” she says. “It was strange. As far as I can remember, that’s the first time that has ever happened with me.” She suspects they may have been pressured not to seek help, but could not say by whom.
Much the same happened with the lawyer the family hired. Zaurbek Sadakhanov, who has worked on numerous high-profile cases involving rights abuses in Chechnya, says that on March 7 he signed an agreement with the Dadaev family to work on the murder case. Armed with his power of attorney documents, he rushed over to the headquarters of the Investigative Committee in Moscow, Russia’s version of the FBI, where his new client Dadaev was then being interrogated. But he says the guards refused to let him in the building.
“That means any testimony he gave must be thrown out,” Sadakhanov tells TIME. “Under Russian procedural law, any lawyer contracted to represent a client must be allowed to attend the client’s interrogation. Otherwise it’s illegal.”
But Sadakhanov never got a chance to file a formal complaint, because his client’s family called him the following day to annul their contract. “I don’t know the reason,” Sadakhanov says. “They just said they don’t need a lawyer anymore.”
That seems remarkable considering that Dadaev’s sister, speaking on behalf of the family, publicly denied her brother’s guilt later that same day. In an interview with the state-funded Russian news agency Ruptly, Tamara Dadaeva said that her brother had served for 11 years in the Russian military and had been awarded numerous medals. “He was always on the front line, always,” she said. (Dadaeva did not respond to TIME’s requests for further comment.)
But her account was eclipsed that day by the Kremlin’s governor in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took a lead role in the saga. Writing on his Instagram account, he confirmed Dadaeva’s tidbits about her brother and then offered a few of his own. “I knew Zaur as a real patriot of Russia,” he wrote. It turns out the suspected murderer had served as deputy commander of an elite counterterrorism unit in Chechnya, whose security officers pride themselves on being Putin’s most fanatically loyal shock troops.
Many of them have gone to fight as volunteers alongside Russia’s proxy militias in eastern Ukraine over the past year, and in December, Kadyrov assembled about 20,000 of the men under his command, all armed to the hilt and dressed in full combat gear, for a pep talk inside a soccer stadium in his provincial capital. “We will gladly fulfill any order, in any spot in the world where our President tells us to go,” Kadyrov said at the stadium, referring to Putin. “We will not disappoint him.” The assembled troops then chanted, “Allahu Akbar!”
Such public displays of force have of late become Kadyrov’s calling card. After Islamist terrorists struck Paris in January — killing 17 people over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the newspaper Charlie Hebdo — Kadyrov gathered an enormous rally in his capital to denounce the victims of those attacks. The cartoonists had “created a reason” to be targeted, Kadyrov told the crowds gathered around the central mosque in Chechnya. “We firmly declare that we will never allow anyone to go unpunished for insulting the name of the Prophet. We will die if necessary,” he said before roars of approval from the crowd interrupted him.
So what does all this have to do with Nemtsov? Not much, unless you ask the investigators working his murder case. The theory they suggested the day after his assassination named Charlie Hebdo as one of the main potential motives. “Investigators have information that Nemtsov received threats related to his position on the shooting of journalists in the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo in Paris,” the Investigative Committee said in an official statement.
This seemed utterly absurd to Nemtsov’s closest associates. His personal assistant of many years, Olga Shorina, says he never received any threats from Islamists, let alone from anyone upset over his position on Charlie Hebdo. “That’s total nonsense,” she tells TIME. Indeed, Nemtsov’s remarks on that issue were roughly in line with Putin’s.
Two days after the Paris attacks, Nemtsov wrote on his blog that the world is witnessing a “medieval Islamic inquisition” much like the vicious crusades that Christians carried out when their religion was the same age as Islam. “Centuries will pass and Islam will mature, while terrorism will fade into the past. But it does not make sense to sit and wait,” Nemtsov wrote, calling on Muslim leaders to condemn the attacks in Paris and not allow anyone to justify them with reference to religion.
In an official Kremlin statement, Putin likewise condemned the Paris attacks as “barbaric” the day after they happened and, through a spokesman, said that nothing could possibly justify them. The President then sent his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to march in Paris on Jan. 11 with other world leaders in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
Over the past year, the only documented threats Nemtsov received were related not to Paris but Ukraine. He vocally opposed the presence of Russian troops and military hardware alongside Ukrainian separatists, including the Chechen volunteers sent from the ranks of Kadyrov’s security forces. In July, he filed a formal complaint to the Investigative Committee alleging that he had received death threats related “to my political position on the events in Ukraine,” Nemtsov wrote in the complaint, which was published after his death in Russia’s New Times magazine.
“In recent years he was constantly under attack for his politics,” says Nemtsov’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov. While campaigning in the mayoral elections in Sochi in 2009 he was splashed in the face with ammonia. The next year pro-Kremlin activists pulled a sack over his head when he arrived at a Moscow airport. The year after that a toilet was thrown over the fence of his apartment building in Moscow onto the roof of his car. And last fall supporters of pro-Russian separatism in Ukraine threw eggs at him during an opposition rally he was leading in the capital. “Each time the authorities laughed it off as an expression of the people’s will,” Prokhorov tells TIME. “But this wasn’t the people. These were Kremlin toughs.”
But on Sunday, after the suspects appeared in court for his murder, Kadyrov claimed that Charlie Hebdo was the reason Nemtsov was killed rather than his clashes with the Kremlin. “Everyone who knows Zaur [Dadaev] insists that he is a deeply religious person, and that he, like all Muslims, was shaken by the actions of Charlie [Hebdo] and the comments in support of the caricatures [it] printed,” he wrote on Instagram, his favorite means of self-expression.
Shorina, like many of Nemtsov’s friends, was horrified by these remarks. “He was blatantly praising the alleged killers, not questioning their guilt but applauding their patriotism,” she says.
That led some commentators to suggest that Kadyrov or his private security squad may have gone rogue in a fit of religious zeal, breaking ranks with the Kremlin. But these assumptions were premature. The same day Kadyrov made his remarks in support of the murder suspect, Putin awarded the Chechen leader with the Order of Honor, one of Russia’s highest civilian medals.
In a formal Kremlin decree, which the government published on Monday, Putin also bestowed a medal on Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the murder of another enemy of the Kremlin, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned to death in London in 2006. British authorities have sought to extradite Lugovoi in connection with that murder, which was carried out with a highly radioactive substance slipped into the victim’s tea. But instead of cooperating with the investigation, Russia has made the suspected killer a member of parliament, which grants him immunity from prosecution. The state honors Lugovoi received from Putin on Sunday — “For Service to the Fatherland” — shows that he very much remains in the Kremlin’s good graces.
So where does that leave the cause of justice in the Nemtsov case? At least according to their latest public statements, the relatives of Dadaev, now charged with organizing the murder, believe in his innocence. But they have for some reason refused all outside help in proving it. Sadakhanov, the lawyer they hired and fired in the course of a day, has doubts about his former client’s reported confession. “Of course the prosecutors will say whatever they want,” he says. “But no proof of the confession was offered in court, which is very strange.”
As for Nemtsov’s loved ones, they don’t doubt that the suspects now under arrest could have been the triggermen in his killing. But they refuse to believe that the case begins and ends with them. “There’s someone higher up who organized this,” says Shorina. “And they’re not giving those people up.” That would risk linking the assassination to Nemtsov’s political activism, which was never a theory the investigators were willing to allow. It would have been a lot messier than the quick detective story they pulled off. And now the case appears to be closed.