Adam Osmayev: the public schoolboy and a plot to kill Vladimir Putin
In 1998 he was doing his A-levels at an elite college near Stroud. Now he’s on trial in Ukraine for trying to kill the Russian President. The Independent’s correspondents Shaun Walker and Cahal Milmo investigates his case.
The state prosecutor, dressed in a regulation navy jacket with gilded buttons and insignia, reads in a monotone from the thick sheaf of papers that make up the indictment. Several hours in, she gets to the key phrase: “To carry out a terrorist act with the aim of the elimination of the head of the government of the Russian Federation, V. V. Putin.” Locked behind the black metal bars of the courtroom’s cage, surrounded by armed police, the defendant Adam Osmayev smiles wryly.
Mr Osmayev has an unusual biography for an alleged Chechen terrorist. Son of one of the troubled republic’s most successful businessmen, he spent his youth in Britain where he was educated at a boarding school in the Cotswolds before studying economics at the University of Buckingham. In an interview from prison, the first time he has spoken out since his arrest over a year ago, he claimed that the charges against him are totally fabricated.
According to the report of Cahal Milmo who meets the man assigned to be Adam Osmayev’s guardian in Britain, for Adam Osmayev, the manicured countryside of the Cotswolds was a world away from the battle-scarred landscape of his Chechen homeland. But as he mixed with students at his expensive private school, he did not forget his roots. While staying at the home of the temporary guardian where he and other pupils from Wycliffe College spent their holidays, the tall, pensive teenager was once asked what he wanted to do when he was older. His reply was categorical: “I want to be president. President of Chechnya.”
Robert Workman, a former timber exporter who, with his wife, took on the role of looking after Adam and one of his cousins after their parents, both senior figures in Chechnya’s then pro-Russian government, sent them to school in Britain in 1994. Mr Workman would take in eight or nine international Wycliffe students at a time after being appointed as their temporary legal guardian so they could be cared for during half-term or longer school holidays.
Sitting in his home close to the £10,000-a-term school, Mr Workman, 73, said: “It’s extraordinary to think of Adam facing such serious charges. He was a confident, ambitious young man – as we could see when my wife asked him what he wanted to do in life.
“But he also wanted nothing to do with what was going on back home. I remember we had a Russian student staying at the same time as Adam and his cousin. I asked Adam if they were OK with the Russian lad and he said ‘Of course, what is going on is adult business.’”
Mr Workman, who has now retired from the guardianship role, said he remembered Adam fondly despite the Chechen, along with several of his fellow students, emptying much of his stock of home-brewed cider during the night. He was also a keen wrestler. “He and his cousin would practice on our lawn,” he said. “They were amazingly fast. There would be a tangle of limbs and suddenly one of them would be on top of the other. They were just lively lads.”
“The one thing I would say is that he was a born leader,” he added. “On one occasion another Chechen or Russian lad refused to help out with the washing up. Adam took the boy outside. I could hear him talking to him. A few minutes later, the boy came back in and picked up the tea towel without saying another word.”
He occasionally attended a mosque held in a house in a nearby town but showed no sign of zealotry. Instead, he pursued his studies and did well, securing three As and a C at A-level. His school report portrays an accomplished student. “Throughout his time in the Sixth Form, Adam has set himself high standards; usually he has managed to meet them,” it reads. [He] is charming an generally self-assured young man.” His tutor did note a “less certain side to his nature”, but the overall tone of the report, provided by Mr Osmayev’s wife Amina and confirmed as genuine by a former teacher of the school, was wholeheartedly positive. It concluded: “I feel that he has great potential and the determination to make the most of that potential.”
Mr Workman said he had heard nothing from him since. He said: “In all honesty, I believed he was dead because of what was happening in Chechnya. I’m relieved to find out he’s still alive, if not quite in the circumstances you would hope.”
Just how the 31-year-old Osmayev went from bucolic Gloucestershire to a Ukrainian prison cell, where he stands accused of planning one of the most audacious terrorist acts in history, is a strange tale featuring allegations of torture, vendettas in the Russian secret services and rivalries in the murky world of Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leadership.
Last February, a week before the presidential election, Russians woke up to dramatic news footage of a foiled assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin, then the Prime Minister, who was standing for a return to the Kremlin as president. Grainy footage showed dozens of heavily armed, masked special forces troops storming an apartment in the Black Sea resort of Odessa, Ukraine, and arresting an obviously injured man. The reports, aired on state-controlled television, said three men had planned the attack on Putin on the orders of the Dokka Umarov, the leader of a radical Islamist terror group in the war-torn republic.
Adam Osmayev was named the main organiser, and Russian television filmed the Chechen, his face covered with cuts and bruises, admitting that “the plan was to go to Moscow and carry out an attack on Putin”. The strike was due straight after the presidential elections, and was in the final stages of planning, he said. The men were stopped when they accidentally detonated a bomb they were preparing. One of them was killed, another arrested, and Osmayev went to ground until he was captured in the raid several weeks later.
Ever since, Russia has been trying to extradite Mr Osmayev, but after he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights the process was halted, and so now the case has come to trial in Ukraine. Mr Osmayev is now facing a 15-year prison sentence if found guilty. In a court hearing last week, he retracted his confession and the trial proper will now begin on Thursday.
Through a channel which cannot be revealed, The Independent was able to interview Mr Osmayev directly. Although he refused, on the advice of his lawyer, to talk about details of his case before he reveals them in court, he was categorical that the charges against him are false, and spoke at length about alleged torture that he faced in the early stages of the investigation.
“When they broke into the flat to arrest me, they put me face down on the floor,” recalls Mr Osmayev, speaking softly in perfect, almost accentless English learned during his seven-year stay in Britain. “I wasn’t resisting, but they put handcuffs on me with my hands behind my back, and started beating me, on the back of the head, and with guns.” He was told that what he was going through was nothing compared to what they would do if he did not co-operate, he says.
“They said they would chop my penis off and put it in my mouth. Then they covered my head with a plastic bag. They told me they had my father and stepmother as hostages, and they would be arrested if I didn’t confess.”
He also says that he was injected with unknown substances that made him alternately dazed and euphoric. He was told that if he did not admit to a plot against President Putin, he would be handed over to Russia and find himself in the notorious torture chambers of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s ruthless Kremlin-backed leader. Admit to the crime, they told him, and he would be given a short prison sentence in Ukraine. “I was ready to admit to anything, even plotting to kill the Pope. Because what Kadyrov does is well known to the world. More than anything I was worried about my father. He had a heart attack a few years ago and I was more worried for him that I was for myself.”
The role of Mr Osmayev’s father in the case is intriguing. Aslanbek Osmayev, 52, was the head of Chechnya’s oil resources in the early 1990s, a key source of wealth in a region that was about to undergo more than a decade of bitter warfare. Coming from a background of high-ranking Chechen Communists, he was able to exploit well-placed contacts in the late 1980s, and says he made his “first million” during Perestroika, before the Soviet Union had even collapsed. By 1994 he could afford to send his son Adam to Wycliffe College, a £10,000-per-term school in the Cotswolds, where he took A-levels in 1998.
In 2001, shortly after former rebel Akhmad Kadyrov was installed as leader of the region with the Kremlin’s blessing, he asked Aslanbek Osmayev to return to Grozny and run Chechennefteprodukt, the regional oil company. Working closely with father Kadyrov, Mr Osmayev says he fought off attempts from Russian oil companies, backed by elements of the FSB secret services, to seize the region’s assets. “There was a major battle for resources going on between different clans in the FSB, and I was in the middle of it,” he recalls, in a Skype conversation from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he fled after the arrest of his son. “Adam had come back from the UK and he was my right-hand man, we worked together.”
In 2004, Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated during an army parade at a stadium in Grozny, and his son Ramzan became the effective head of the pro-Russian regime. “I met with Ramzan a month after Akhmad’s death and he said he had signed a deal with Rosneft [a Russian state oil company] and I wasn’t needed any more.” Aware that crossing Kadyrov junior was a bad idea, Mr Osmayev and Adam left for Moscow.
Enemies of Kadyrov have a habit of meeting sticky ends, and in recent years there has been a series of suspicious and unexplained assassinations of whistleblowers or political rivals of Mr Kadyrov in cities as far apart as Dubai, Moscow, Istanbul and Vienna. Although Ramzan Kadyrov has always denied any involvement in illegal killings, it is not surprising that Mr Osmayev was worried for himself and his son. He hid abroad for some time, but Adam remained in Moscow where in 2007 he was accused of plotting a terrorist attack against Kadyrov. He was released when the evidence didn’t stack up.
“They couldn’t get to me so they went for Adam,” claims Aslanbek Osmayev. “There wasn’t an ounce of truth in those allegations, and there is no truth in these latest ones, either. Ramzan knows that I know too much, but I don’t think he is behind it, I think it is people around him trying to please him. This is all thought up by Russian military intelligence, and I even know the name of the person behind it. I think it is partly personal revenge against me, and partly it was an attempt to please superiors with a ‘convenient’ terrorist plot just before the elections.” Aslanbek Osmayev himself was also held for several days after Adam’s arrest, effectively as a hostage, in an Odessa hotel room. He was watched over by agents from Ukraine’s SBU secret service and Russia’s FSB, he claims, who demanded he gave evidence against his son. He refused to talk, and was eventually released after Adam himself confessed.
Adam Osmayev’s wife Amina Okuyeva says her husband hardly knew the two other men allegedly involved in the plot, and his lawyer, Olga Chertok, claims that the prosecutor’s case is full of inconsistencies. She leafs through a sheaf of court documents patterned with notes in spidery writing, at regular intervals jabbing a finger at a particularly implausible detail and muttering “Madness! Insanity!” Working from a small office in a shabby Odessa courtyard, Ms Chertok is an independent lawyer who usually takes on corporate raiding cases, and says that the authorities did everything they could to keep her away from the Osmayev case. Since she took it on, she has noticed people following her, and suspects that her telephone has been bugged. “They wanted a pliant lawyer, and they knew that wasn’t me,” she says. “There’s not a single piece of evidence that implicates him in any way.”
Much of the indictment does indeed seem far-fetched. The idea that the three men operating out of an Odessa apartment could kill Putin by driving cars filled with explosives into the path of his motorcade is highly implausible. “Putin is perhaps the best protected leader in the world,” says Andrei Soldatov, a security analyst. “Attacking his motorcade is unrealistic, he travels much faster than any Western leader would be able to as the streets are always cleared of all other cars before his motorcade arrives.” Most Russian analysts believe the whole story to have been a plot concocted to boost Putin’s ratings.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Adam Osmayev has some questions to answer. While the details of a plot targeting Putin seem fanciful, was he handling explosive devices, and if not, why was there an explosion? How did he know the other two men involved, one of whom died in the explosion and the other, Ilya Pyanzin, who has been extradited to Russia? Most importantly, why did he hide from police for several weeks after the explosion, until he was found by the security forces in the raid that was later shown on Russian television? He claims that he has answers to all these questions that prove his innocence, but cannot speak about them publicly before he gives evidence in court, which is due at the next hearing on Thursday.
Asked if there is a message he would like to pass on to those who knew him in the UK, or anyone else interested in his case, Mr Osmayev says that although he is a devout Muslim, he has never been interested in radical Islam or terrorism. “I was educated in Britain, I feel like a very European person,” he says. “I don’t believe in terrorism, I believe in freedom of speech and human rights. That’s why I’m against Kadyrov in Chechnya. I have never been involved in any kind of terrorism.”
1981 Born in Grozny, Chechnya
1994 Sent to study in Britain
2001 Returns to Chechnya
2007 Arrested in connection with an assassination attempt on Ramzan Kadyrov. Moves to Ukraine
February 2012 Arrested in Odessa where he was hiding with his father over plot to kill Vladimir Putin
December 2012 Court case begins
14 February 2013 Osmayev due to give his testimony to the court
Source: The Independent