The suspicious death of a 23-year-old woman in southern Russia made national headlines. Madina Umayeva, a resident of Chechnya, the country’s most repressive region, was most likely killed by a violent husband. But the authorities deny it despite the protest of the victim’s family. Human rights defenders warn that the case is the latest example of domestic violence going unpunished in Russia.
Femicide remains prevalent across Eastern Europe, where patriarchal structures are still widespread. However, the death of this young woman sparked a public outcry both in Russia and abroad. Our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta investigated the circumstances surrounding Madina’s tragic end.
Russia partially decriminalized domestic violence in 2017, but gender-based violence had been an ongoing problem in the country long before that. Authorities paint domestic violence as a “family matter” and often fail to protect survivors. According to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch, up to 70 percent of women don’t report incidents and only around 3% of domestic violence cases end up in court.
The situation is worse in southern Russia, and specifically in Chechnya. Rights groups say women are often subjected to beatings, forced marriage, and honor killings in the region. Gendered violence is part of the overall regime of terror in the region under the corrupt Kadyrov leadership. It fuels monstrous income inequality, as well as the worst human rights violations in the country. Violence in the home is often normalized, leaving many women fearing to seek help.
Chechnya made two failed bids to break away from Russia over the past two and a half decades, which resulted in brutal fighting. Kadyrov has been given free rein over the oil-rich republic in exchange for his allegiance to Putin.
Madina was married off at the age of 16 to 20-year-old Viskhadzhi Khamidov.
Viskhadzhi Khamidov. Screenshot from Chechen State TV channel ChGTRK.
Over their seven years of marriage, Madina would regularly endure violent beatings from her husband and would frequently run away from home. Despite her abusive home life, both her mother and father persuaded her to endure her husband’s violent behavior for the sake of their three children.
The Khamidov family isn’t wealthy but Madina’s husband had links to Kadyrov, the region’s brutal leader whose dictatorial rule exists under the direct patronage of Vladimir Putin. The man worked at a training center for Chechnya’s special forces, run by Kadyrov’s cousin Abdul-Kerim Kadyrov.
Khamidov reportedly became more aggressive while working at the center and Madina’s attempts to escape became more frequent. But the job gave Madina’s in-laws perks - while the whole nation was in lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the family had a permit for free movement thanks to Abdul-Kerim Kadyrov.
Ramzan and Abdul-Kerim Kadyrov. Photo: grozny-inform.ru
According to Madina’s mother, Khutmat Davletmurzaeva, her daughter had a fight with her husband and the in-laws just before she died. Madina used a portion of the children’s benefit payments to purchase a television and a satellite dish, which sparked the dispute.
Madina’s in-laws say the woman fell down the stairs after an epileptic seizure and died. But there is no record of the woman having epilepsy episodes before. Furthermore, neighbors said they heard screaming coming from the house on that day.
Initially, neither her husband, his relatives nor the police had questions regarding Madina’s death. Any questions that the doctor might have had appeared to be silenced by the police.
Madina’s funeral was hastily organized for the same night. It contradicted centuries-old Chechen traditions, which dictate that the dead must be buried before sunset. With the funeral held so quickly, her father was unable to view the body, and no autopsy was conducted.
A video of the midnight burial was posted to social media. It shocked the tradition-driven society and spread across social networks like wildfire.
Days after Madina was buried, messages alleging her murder started flooding social networks.
“This girl was killed. Do her relatives know that she was killed,” her mother recalled a voice message that was sent to the sister in law.
Madina’s mother said everyone was in shock: “That’s when we began asking the husband’s relatives to show the document stating Madina’s cause of death. But they wouldn’t show us. They only said: don’t take her out of the grave. If you do, nothing good will come of it.”
For Davletmurzaeva, the request sounded like another admission of guilt.
Khutmat Davletmurzaeva (left). Screenshot from CHGTRK "Grozny"
Public Shaming by the Officials
After that, Madina’s sister went to the local law enforcement officers to report a crime. According to the mother, the family started receiving threats from Khamidov shortly after.
The victim’s family sent the republic’s investigative committee an official written request, seeking the initiation of criminal proceedings and an exhumation.
“On the day of the funeral, there were signs of beatings on her body and a (mark) on her neck, there was blood on her things (shawl, dress), which does not correspond to the version about the cause of her death given to us by the Khamidovs,” the statement read.
Khutmat Davletmurzaeva, mother of Madina, at a meeting with representatives of her husband's family, doctor and police officers. Screenshot from Chechen state TV channel ChGTRK Grozny.
The demand for the exhumation sounded the alarm on wrongdoing by local authorities. On June 18, a pre-investigation began and two days later Madina’s body was exhumed. Any impartial investigative efforts that may have been taking place were hampered days later when Kadyrov himself arrived in Madina’s village of Gudermes on June 23.
In a televised meeting, Kadyrov confronted Madina’s mother, shamed the family for insisting on the exhumation, and justified domestic violence.
“If she married once, gave birth to children, a woman should cherish this marriage. Fights happen, beatings happen. A mother also beats her child when she scolds and educates,” Kadyrov stated during the broadcast.
During what became a three-hour televised trial, Kadyrov pressed Davletmurzaeva to provide the names of the neighbors who heard screaming on the day Madina died. He then forced the mother to apologize.
The ongoing media coverage by local state-controlled outlets served to further tarnish the family while painting Kadyrov as a fair leader and Khamidov as innocent. Disinformation was also deployed. A local TV outlet controlled by the officials published a voice message seemingly from the victim’s mother, chastising Madina for being unfaithful while praising the mother-in-law as “affectionate, simple and good.” It is unclear when and under what circumstances the message was recorded.
Human rights groups say these tactics aren’t new to the Russian region. Following the televised meeting, Human Rights Watch stated this will once again block “badly needed justice for a victim of domestic violence and reinforce a dangerous message that those seeking redress for abuse should stay silent.”
/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Milashina. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.