The leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was recently hit with US sanctions over human rights abuses such as his government’s torture and “purge” of gay men. But there’s one thing about the sanctions that seems to particularly bother Kadyrov: Losing his Instagram account.
“The closure of his Instagram account is a matter of Kadyrov’s image, of his prestige,” Oleg Orlov, the founder of a Russian human rights organisation called Memorial, told The Guardian. “When he feels offended, nothing else is important to him—whoever gets in his way must be destroyed.”
Kadyrov’s Instagram account acquired over 3 million followers and became an incredibly important propaganda tool for the autocrat before it was pulled down. Facebook, which owns Instagram, also shut down the Chechen leader’s Facebook account. And he’s really not happy about any of it.
Some Western news outlets used to fawn over Kadyrov’s account as some kind of amusing spectacle, only mentioning his human rights abuses as a footnote. Kadyrov’s quirky photos posing with wild animals and lifting weights made him a curiosity a bit like his Kremlin counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But his human rights abuses, especially against the gay community, have become better known on the world stage and the sanctions have done some small part to help spread the word.
Chechnya has blamed human rights organisations like Memorial for the US sanctions (and ultimately the loss of his beloved Instagram account) and the Russian republic has reportedly begun a brutal crackdown on members in the region. The organisation has had one of its offices set on fire by two unknown assailants, and one member, 60-year-old Oyub Titiev, was arrested just a couple of weeks ago for possession of marijuana.
As The Guardian notes, a high-ranking Chechen official once encouraged police officers to frame innocent suspects by planting evidence, and Titiev, known as a teetotaler, insists that the marijuana was not his. Titiev even wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin explaining that if he later admits that the drugs were his, it was only because he was tortured. Titiev faces 10 years in prison.
“Framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic used by Chechnya’s authorities to punish and discredit their critics in the eyes of conservative Chechen society,” Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s program director in Russia, explained in a blog post after Titiev was arrested.
“There’s no doubt that Titiev’s arrest is an attempt to finally push Memorial—which has been extensively reporting on collective punishment practices, enforced disappearances, torture, punitive house burnings, and other abuses by local authorities—out of Chechnya,” Lokshina continued.
Kadyrov, formerly a Chechen separatist who currently has the full backing of the Kremlin, has said that there are no gay men in Chechnya, but that if there are, they should leave. Many gay Chechens have fled to Canada where they’ve been given asylum.
“If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them,” Kadyrov said last summer during a segment on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.
For now, Kadyrov is using a Chechen-based Instagram clone called Mylistory, though he doesn’t have the incredible reach that he once had with the real thing. Signing up for Mylistory requires a Russian address.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo about Kadyrov and how many other world leaders have had their Instagram accounts suspended. For whatever it’s worth, Donald Trump’s Instagram is still going strong, even if the content is mostly just Getty photos of President Trump looking pissed off.