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Facebook Removes Chechen Strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's Accounts Over U.S. Sanctions


Now to Russia, where the leader of the republic of Chechnya can no longer post on Instagram or Facebook. Ramzan Kadyrov's accounts were recently deactivated after he was put on a U.S. sanctions list earlier this month. Facebook says it was legally obliged to act. To explain more, we're joined by Charles Maynes. He's a reporter based in Moscow and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SUAREZ: First of all, explain who Ramzan Kadyrov is. What kind of power does he hold in Chechnya, which is, after all, part of Russia?

MAYNES: That's right. Well, so Ramzan Kadyrov is the 41-year-old, largely considered the iron fisted, leader of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. And you might just say that he's essentially Vladimir Putin's point man to keep Russia's Southern Caucasus in line.

The problem with that is that while Vladimir Putin made Ramzan Kadyrov, there are real questions as to whether he can control Ramzan Kadyrov. And there are many, in my view, credible accusations of human rights abuses made against him. These include the extra judicial killings and torture and death of gay men in Chechnya that landed him on the U.S. sanctions list with the now expanded so-called Magnitsky List.

SUAREZ: And he loved social media, particularly Instagram.

MAYNES: You know, what Trump is to Twitter, Kadyrov was to Instagram. He loved the medium, although he is on other social networks. He had 4 million followers, and he used it to praise Vladimir Putin. He would wrestle crocodiles. He would show mixed martial arts fights, threaten the opposition and also praise gunmen, for example, who were implicated in the death of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. So it was always a controversial platform but one that he embraced eagerly.

SUAREZ: When Facebook, which owns Instagram, took down Kadyrov's accounts, they said it was because he had been added to a sanctions list. But there are other leaders who are on those sanctions lists, like President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who are still active on the sites. How does Facebook explain its actions in regards to Kadyrov in particular?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Facebook said that they'd made this decision because the human rights sanctions by the United States against Ramzan Kadyrov. And you can debate whether that is the right move for a private company to do. But, you know, you have to take the background of this. Facebook, of course, is under all sorts of pressure and getting a lot of negative press for its role in the Russia election scandal in our U.S. presidential elections. And it seems that it's trying to more eagerly please government officials by making this move. Certainly, some people see it that way here.

Also, it's really interesting, in Russia, this isn't the only bit of social media news that made headlines this week. The opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, released a video on YouTube that called for a nationwide boycott of elections scheduled for March. That video was taken down for reasons we don't quite understand.

SUAREZ: What does President Putin, one of Kadyrov's closest allies, as you mention, say about this?

MAYNES: Well, he hasn't said anything particular himself. His spokesman said that the Kremlin was concerned about this. You know, generally speaking, whenever there are attacks on what the Russians say are free speech here, they like to point out the hypocrisy of the U.S. And that was something actually Ramzan said in a post to Twitter. He said, you know, how do you explain declining, essentially, 4 million subscribers access to information?

SUAREZ: You know, if you're sitting in the United States and looking at social media, it is remarkable the degree to which these companies have tried to pioneer a kind of placeless-ness (ph) of not particular to one place kind of existence. But when you're sitting in Russia, does Facebook, does Instagram look like an American company, especially when something like this happens?

MAYNES: Well, that's certainly the position the Kremlin takes. And they point to the leaked documents by Edward Snowden when he famously issued all these NSA documents that seemed to show up some kind of collusion between Western tech companies and the American government and the NSA, in particular. And that was the moment for the Russians where they said, you know, these Western tech companies want to claim that they sort of exist in a void and they're not tied to anybody, but in fact, they're working in some degree - some more, some less - with American security services.

Now, Russians then imposed a new law - a data law which, essentially, demands that Western companies like Facebook, like Apple and others, move their servers on Russian soil. The Russian government says this is to protect Russians' privacy. But a lot of Russian opposition, for example, are very concerned about this. They see it more as a bid for the security services here to get backdoor access that they really want and haven't been unable to do because they're Western companies.

SUAREZ: Charles Maynes is a reporter based in Moscow. Charles, thanks a lot.

MAYNES: Thank you, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.