“He’d told me to wait for him, that he’d find a way to come to Paris so we could live together. Finally, in early September he called me from the prison on Chios,” the wife of 34-year-old Chechen Amaev Khavazi tells Kathimerini of her husband who was arrested in Greek waters on September 5 trying to enter the country illegally among a boatload of 45 undocumented migrants.
Wearing a black niqab and with almost her entire body covered up so all that can be seen are her downcast eyes and folded hands, 37-year-old Zarema is sitting in the office of her husband’s Greek lawyer in Athens. She says that when she first went to see her husband in prison his clothes were bloody. “He had tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists,” she explains. “He told me that he would rather die here than return to Russia.”
On September 25, a few days after his arrest, Khavazi applied for asylum using a false name, Umar Shamaev. His real name and an international arrest warrant issued by Russia were discovered after his fingerprints were taken and his true identity was confirmed a few days later.
On October 1, the appeals prosecutor for northern Greece ordered that Khavazi be held for 40 days on the authority of the Red Notice issued by the Russian branch of Interpol. He is currently being held at the Greek capital’s maximum-security Korydallos Prison. According to the Russian branch of the International Criminal Police Organization, from January to August of 2009 Khavazi was part of a militant group led by Chechen rebel Tarkhan Gaziev that conducted armed attacks against Russian government forces. In one of these attacks, Khavazi stands accused of launching a grenade at two cars, killing five police officers and injuring another four. However, the warrant for his arrest was not issued until April 2014.
As expected, the discovery of Khavazi’s identity galvanized the Greek authorities as the Greek Police (ELAS) and the National Intelligence Service (EYP) had also received information suggesting that the 34-year-old Chechen may have been involved in several bloody campaigns during the 2012-14 period in Syria and northern Iraq, fighting on the side of the so-called Islamic State. The Public Order Ministry has refuted these claims and Zarema also has a different story to tell.
The Chechen’s wife admitted to Kathimerini that from 2000 to 2012, her husband fought with Chechen separatists but denies that religion was a driving force.
“He believed that he was fighting only for Chechnya’s independence. He never traveled to Syria or Iraq,” she said. “He gave up armed action when some of the rebels began talking about creating an Islamic caliphate in the Caucasus.”
According to Zarema, Khavazi fled to Turkey, where he remained in hiding until trying to flee to Greece – and being arrested.
Zarema, also a Chechen, has lived in Paris since 2009 after being granted political asylum, along with her mother and younger brother. She maintained regular contact with Khavazi through Skype and the pair were married in March 2013. The 34-year-old lived in an apartment in the northwestern Turkish town of Yalova, trying to stay under the radar for fear that Russian secret services would locate and assassinate him, his wife claims.
“Every month or two I would travel from Paris to Istanbul to visit him,” Zarema explains. “I had suggested that I move there to be with him but he thought it was too dangerous. I visited him for the last time in June. He said, ‘I’ll come to meet you in Paris.’”
According to Zarema, in the period when they were together in Turkey they received assistance from a local nongovernmental organization called the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH Insani Yardim Vakfi). “As far as I know, he never traveled to Syria, Iraq or anywhere else at any point while living in Turkey,” she tells Kathimerini.
Zarema comes from the Chechen region of Tsotsi-Yurt, where she worked as a teacher until the spring of 2002. According to her statement, on May 24 of that year her father, a vice principal at a local school, was beaten to death by Russian police looking for information about her 18-year-old brother, who had joined the Chechen rebel forces. Two weeks later, Zarema, her mother and younger brother fled to Dagestan and then to Kazakhstan, before ending up in Paris.
“In 2005 I learned that my brother, whom I had not seen since the night of my father’s murder, was dead,” says Zarema. “He had also been killed by government forces. He had returned to the village to gather supplies together with another three people. A local resident saw them and tipped off the police. After they were executed their bodies were tied to a car and dragged around the village.”
According to Zarema, Khavazi had wanted to join the police force when he was young but the Second Chechen War in 1999 prompted him to leave his village and join the separatist fighters.
Khavazi’s defense lawyer, Yiannis Lavrentiadis, says that there are several questions regarding the case against the Chechen. “Oddly enough, no public document relating to the Khavazi case has so far been shared with the Greek judicial authorities,” he tells Kathimerini.
Lavrentiadis adds that the Interpol Red Notice does not detail the protocol number of the judicial decision to prosecute Khavazi and says that he has filed an appeal against his temporary arrest along with a request that he not be extradited to Russia.
On October 8, a protest rally was held outside the Greek Embassy in Helsinki supporting Khavazi’s appeal not to be extradited as well those of another four Chechens who were arrested with him for trying to illegally enter Greece. Among the four is an 18-year-old woman with a baby. The protesters handed a written request to the Greek ambassador, which stated that should the five be extradited they face the possibility of being murdered, tortured or wrongfully incarcerated.
“We ask that you bear in mind that Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have stressed in numerous reports that Chechen citizens who oppose the government face serious persecution all over Russia,” the petition, signed by the “Chechen Community of Finland,” said.
A similar protest was organized last week in Oslo.