MOSCOW (Reuters) - Suggestions that Russian politician Boris Nemtsov was killed by Chechen Islamists are nonsense designed to deflect suspicion from President Vladimir Putin, associates of the slain opposition figure said on Monday.
Investigators have charged two men, including a former Chechen police official, over the shooting of Nemtsov within sight of the Kremlin walls on Feb. 27. Three more men have been arrested, and another blew himself up late on Saturday as police in Chechnya tried to detain him, Russian media said.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said the charged ex-policeman, Zaur Dadayev, was a pious Muslim who had been angered by publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Nemtsov had condemned an attack on Charlie Hebdo in which Islamist militants killed 12 people in January. But friends reject this as a motive, saying they do not believe Islamist gunmen acting alone could have shot him dead in one of the most closely guarded areas of central Moscow unless they had powerful and well-connected backers.
These associates believe it was Putin who stood to gain from his killing, though Russian officials have denied involvement and the president has called it a shameful tragedy.
“Our worst fears are coming true,” Ilya Yashin, the co-leader of Nemtsov’s small liberal opposition party, said on Twitter late on Sunday. “The trigger man will be blamed, while those who actually ordered Nemtsov’s killing will go free.”
“Investigators’ nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov’s killing suits the Kremlin and takes Putin out of the firing line,” Yashin added on Monday.
Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, was shot in the back four times as he walked home with his girlfriend after dining next to Red Square. He was the most prominent of a string of Kremlin critics to be killed during Putin’s 15 years in power.
Dadayev and four other suspects, all ethnic Chechens, appeared in a Moscow court on Sunday.
“This is an attempt to find a motive that masks the main aim: getting rid of one of the leaders of the opposition,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a prominent Putin opponent, told Ekho Moskvy radio station. “I am sure that there are much more high-ranking people mixed up in this.”
Dadayev was a former deputy commander of the Chechen police’s “Sever” (North) battalion which fought Islamist rebels in the region, where Russia has waged two wars to defeat separatists since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Dadayev’s mother told Reuters her son could not have killed Nemtsov, and was being set up.
“He served his so-called motherland for 12 years. They threw him into the toughest areas, into the mountains to fight insurgents. He was a model fighter with a heap of state medals,” Aimani Dadayeva told Reuters by telephone.
“And for them (the authorities) to use him for their own ends and to accuse him so harshly? ... I don’t want anybody to use us for their own ends,” she said, in tears.
Russian media reported on Sunday that police tried to detain another suspect at an apartment block in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. The suspect threw one grenade at police, then used a second to blow himself up, the reports said.
Nemtsov was not widely popular in Russia outside the small, urban intelligentsia. But his supporters say he was a threat to the Kremlin because he was determined to expose official corruption and deceit.
In the days before he was killed, he was working on a report which, aides said, would allege that Russia was sending regular troops to fight in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has denied any direct involvement in the fighting.
Prosecutors have charged Dadayev and another man, Anzor Gubashev, with involvement in Nemtsov’s killing, and officials say Dadayev has admitted involvement. The three others who appeared in court have not been charged so far.
Chechen leader Kadyrov, who is loyal to Putin, said he knew Dadayev and described him as a true patriot.
“All who know Zaur confirm that he is a deep believer and also that he, like all Muslims, was shocked by the activities of Charlie (Hebdo) and comments in support of printing the cartoons,” Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram account.
Nemtsov had defended the French magazine. He argued that Muslim clerics in Russia who had said it was wrong to print the cartoons were, in effect, justifying terrorism, and said prosecutors should investigate the clerics.
Additional reporting by Jason Bush and Thomas Grove; Editing by Mark Trevelyan