Russian authorities reportedly believe that the Chechen gunmen accused of murdering opposition leader Boris Nemtsov worked on their own, raising suspicion among critics of the country's government that a cover-up is shielding someone powerful who ordered the hit.
The former deputy prime minister was shot four times in the back on February 27 while walking with his girlfriend near the Kremlin. While some have argued that President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine created an atmosphere of hatred that encouraged violence against dissidents like Nemtsov, investigators have suggested that Islamic terrorists or agents of the pro-Western Ukrainian government were behind the murder.
Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev, who are both from Russia's restive Caucasus region, were charged on Sunday with involvement in Nemtsov's murder. A Moscow judge said that Dadayev had already confessed his guilt.
Their arrest raised the possibility that Ramzan Kadyrov, a vocal Putin ally who rules the Russian republic of Chechnya with an iron fist, could be connected to the murder. Dadayev served as deputy commander of the Chechen police's North battalion, which is led by a relative of Kadyrov.
Another suspect in the murder, Beslan Shavanov, who allegedly killed himself with a grenade when police attempted to detain him in the Chechen capital of Grozny, served in the same battalion. Three other suspects have also been arrested.
Kadyrov praised Dadayev and Shavanov as brave warriors in a bizarre message that he posted to Instagram on Sunday, and suggested that the devout Dadayev might have been motivated to harm Nemtsov over his support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were killed by Islamic radicals in the Paris terror attacks earlier this year.
"All those who know Dadayev say that he is a deeply religious person and that he, like all Muslims, was shocked by the actions of Charlie [Hebdo] and comments in support of printing the cartoons," Kadyrov wrote. The Chechen leader admitted that Dadayev might have committed a "grievous crime," but also called him a patriot who "could not have taken a step against Russia."
'Investigators' nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov's killing suits the Kremlin and takes Putin out of the firing line.'
Putin unexpectedly awarded Kadyrov a medal of honor on Monday — a gesture widely interpreted as an expression of his support for the Chechen leader. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told VICE News that the medal was a signal to investigators that "Kadyrov shouldn't be touched by this."
The next day, Rosbalt news agency reported that although the case wasn't yet closed, investigators are confident that the two Kadyrov fighters were working on their own.
"Studying the evidence now included in the case and the testimony of witnesses and the main defendant, we can draw a clear conclusion. Nemtsov's murder was the personal initiative of Dadayev and Shavanov," Rosbalt quoted an unnamed law enforcement official as saying. "They didn't have any other clients."
The development was met with incredulity by government critics such as Ilya Yashin, a friend and political ally of Nemtsov who previously told VICE News that he was working to complete the former deputy prime minister's exposé of Russian military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
"The investigation's de facto refusal to find those who actually ordered Nemtsov's murder really raises questions about the possible involvement of high-ranking government officials in the crime," Yashin wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday. "Moreover, this creates the threat that the practice of political murders will continue."
Yashin and other opposition activists fear that the mastermind behind Nemtsov's murder will never be found. In many other killings of regime critics, like that of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, shooters have been sent to prison without implicating whomever ordered the hit.
Gregory Shvedov, whose online resource Caucasian Knot has a network of correspondents in Chechnya and nearby regions, told VICE News that the idea that the accused murderers were acting on their own initiative was "profanation, lies."
Although Kadyrov said following the murder that Dadayev had already left the North battalion, Shvedov and other experts believe he remained in the unit right up to the murder.
"I think that since the North battalion is quartered in barracks, the higher leadership of Chechnya in general controls the location of its fighters," Shvedov said.
Nevertheless, investigators appear to have seized on the idea floated by Kadyrov that Dadayev was driven to kill Nemtsov in revenge over his endorsement of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. According to an unnamed law enforcement previously quoted by Rosbalt, Dadayev told investigators that as a religious person, he couldn't stand it when he found out in January that Nemtsov had spoken negatively about Islam on several occasions.
Nemtsov, who had criticized Kadyrov in the past, argued after the Charlie Hebdo shooting that "when some here write that the caricaturists are to blame, that they insulted the Prophet Muhammad, they are justifying murders." Soon afterward, Kadyrov held a huge protest against Charlie Hebdo's "immorality," during which he declared, "We won't allow the name of the Prophet to be insulted with impunity."
But Nemtsov was just one of many Russian liberals to speak out against the killings in Paris, and experts have ridiculed the alleged Charlie Hebdo motive as "absurd." Geidar Dzhemal, chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, told the Caucasian Knot that Nemtsov's comments "didn't contain criticism of Islam or the Prophet." He also noted that Nemtsov had gathered a million signatures in 1996 protesting the Kremlin's bloody war against an independence movement in Chechnya.
Yashin described the suggestion of the Charlie Hebdo motive as a "political order from the Kremlin" that shifts blame away from Putin and Kadyrov.
"Investigators' nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov's killing suits the Kremlin and takes Putin out of the firing line," he said.
Asked who might have ordered the hit on Nemtsov, Shvedov speculated that it could have been Kadyrov subordinates seeking to please their boss by killing a prominent critic.
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn