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Chechens 'forced to fund efforts to rebuild war-torn Syria'

Russia's mostly Muslim republic of Chechnya is becoming a major player in rebuilding war-ravaged Syria - and its residents are likely to foot the bill, human rights activists say.

Many ordinary Chechens are being forced to make contributions or face the possibility of exile or death, it is being claimed.

A murky charitable foundation run by the family of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is restoring Aleppo's landmark mosque.

The gesture is aimed at helping the Kremlin cement its footprint in Syria and to solidify Mr Kadyrov's standing in the Muslim world.

The Kadyrov Foundation, one of Russia's wealthiest charities, has spent millions bringing Western celebrities to Chechnya, buying sports cars for athletes and building mosques in Israel, Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and elsewhere.

More recently, the foundation turned its sights to Syria.

While no one doubts Syria needs all the help it can get after seven years of civil war, human rights activists see sinister and self-serving objectives in the Kadyrov Foundation's undertaking.

They allege that the organisation has been used as Mr Kadyrov's private piggy bank - one filled by compulsory contributions from the Chechen people.

"The major source of funding for the foundation is ordinary people and businesses in Chechnya because the entire republic is paying this informal tax," said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, project director for Russia and North Caucasus at the International Crisis Group.

It has offered to feed Syrian refugees in Germany and Jordan, sent sheep to Syria for Ramadan feasts, and announced it was rebuilding the war-damaged Great Mosque of Aleppo, a Unesco World Heritage-listed site, as well as another important mosque in the Syrian city of Homs.

Rights activists in the North Caucasus have documented Chechen authorities coercing residents to make contributions from their salaries to the foundation and towards unspecified needs of Mr Kadyrov and his inner circle.

How much Chechen workers give to the foundation varies, activists say.

Some businesses and employees are expected to furnish a set percentage of their earnings every month.

Others, mostly the lowest-paid civil servants, are asked for contributions on an ad-hoc basis.

The average monthly salary is about 360 US dollars (£275) in Chechnya, which has a population of about 1.4 million.

In 2016, prominent rights group Memorial received a formal complaint from employees of a provincial social security department in Chechnya.

They reported that about 70% of their pay was withheld for donations to the foundation.

Memorial petitioned prosecutors, but the investigation found no misconduct.

Refusing to pay is not an option.

Mr Kadyrov's opponents have been killed or driven into exile; disappearances have become mundane; families of suspected militants have been forced to leave Chechnya and their houses burnt down.

He has recruited more than 1,000 people for his private security detail, which is technically part of the Russian Interior Ministry's troops.

"It's impossible to say 'no' because violence is pervasive," Ms Sokirianskaia said.

"Chechnya is small. Everyone knows several people who have been seriously affected by this regime in a violent way, and they need no proof."

The only financial data released by the foundation shows that it held 1.5 billion rubles (£20 million) in net assets in 2015.

Unlike other Russian non-governmental organisations, which are obliged by law to submit financial reports to authorities or face hefty fines, the Kadyrov Foundation closely guards its finances.

The Justice Ministry's official database of NGOs does not list a single report from the Kadyrov Foundation.

The ministry told The Associated Press that the foundation files its financial reports on time and submitted its latest one in March, but would not say why they were not made public.

Mr Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov refused to discuss the foundation's work, telling The Associated Press that "the figures are all in the press".

Mr Kadyrov has ruled predominantly Muslim Chechnya since the 2004 assassination of his father, a separatist leader who switched sides to support the Russian government after two bloody wars in the 1990s.

AP

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