MOSCOW (AP) — An international human rights watchdog lambasted an Oscar-winning actress and other Western celebrities on Wednesday for attending a concert held on the birthday of Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, who has been accused of grave rights abuses and spending taxpayers' money on his eccentric hobbies.
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The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that American actress Hilary Swank, Belgian actor Jean Claude Van Damme and British violinist Vanessa Mae attended the concert in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Singer Seal also reportedly attended the event.
The Oct. 5 show was held at a police-cordoned stage on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's 35th birthday.
Human Rights Watch urged the artists to "avoid legitimizing people like" Kadyrov, who has been accused by rights groups of having orchestrated abductions, extrajudicial killings and the enforcement of sharia law in Chechnya, a Russian republic.
"Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a grim record of abuse," the group's Europe and Central Asia director Huge Williamson said in a statement. "When stars get paid to turn up to party with (Kadyrov), it trivializes the suffering of countless victims of human rights abuses.
The artists' representatives were not immediately available for comment.
Kadyrov is a former separatist rebel who has boasted of killing his first Russian soldier at age 15. He changed sides before the second Chechen war started in 1999.
Respected human rights groups have documented disappearances, house torchings and extra-judicial killings, and say they have evidence of Kadyrov's direct participation in torturing crime suspects. A string of Kadyrov's critics and political rivals have also been brutally murdered in recent years in Russia, Austria and Dubai.
Kadyrov has consistently denied involvement in any of the killings, saying the accusations are fabricated to blacken his name. Dozens of Russian politicians, film and sports stars also attended the concert and praised Kadyrov from a stage arranged between a gigantic mosque and a newly built business center.
During the birthday show, Swank said that she has been taken by the Chechen government's "passion to make peace and to make something beautiful."
"I hope to have a film premiere here," the two-time Oscar winner clad in a streaming evening dress said in remarks televised on Chechen state television. "Happy birthday, Mr. President." Swank appeared to be one of the few women to wear no headscarf.
Kadyrov has imposed an Islamic dress code on women, and his feared security forces have used paintball guns, threats and insults against those refusing to obey. He also publicly approved honor killings of women by their relatives.
Action star Van Damme said he "spoke from his heart," but mispronounced Kadyrov's name and called Chechnya a "nation."
The audience gave Kadyrov a standing ovation when the bullnecked and burly man performed a traditional Chechen dance during a song that praised his rule and called Chechnya "the center of the universe."
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The show was the latest in a series of expensive and extravagant events sponsored by Kadyrov's government amid dire poverty and unemployment in Chechnya.
He has spent millions of dollars to acquire well-bred horses that have competed in some of the world's richest races and to renovate a soccer stadium in Grozny. Famous soccer players have been hired for the club Kadyrov heads.
Under Kadyrov's leadership and backed by huge tranches of money from the federal budget, Chechnya has become relatively quiet. Grozny, left mostly in ruins by two wars, has risen from the rubble, and the insurgent violence that once gripped Chechnya has largely migrated to neighboring republics of the volatile Caucasus region.
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