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Hilary Swank celebrates dictator’s birthday in Chechnya

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (RIA Novosti)

Morally bankrupt movie star Hilary Swank attended the festive birthday party of dictator Ramzan Kadyrov in the Chechen capital of Grozny on Wednesday, accompanied by a number of other celebrities including pop culture oddity Jean-Claude Van Damme and British violinist Vanessa Mae.

Reportedly, Ms Mae was paid half a million dollars to attend the party and perform for President Kadyrov, who has been accused by human rights groups, journalists, and others of presiding over a regime that routinely participates in kidnappings, killings and torture of political opponents and human rights advocates.

As reported in the US Department of State’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Russia, Mr Kadyrov’s forces have been accused by human rights groups of implementing “a widespread, concerted campaign of arson in villages and towns designed to punish families of suspected insurgents.”

A list of human rights campaigners and journalists who have been murdered or who have disappeared because of their work in Chechnya would be too exhaustive to compile here, but let’s just take note of a few of the many victims:

Natalia Estemirova was abducted in Grozny on July 15, 2009, on her way to work. A former teacher and journalist, she was best known for her involvement in “Memorial,” a Russian human rights organization. According to witnesses, Estimarova was working on something “extremely sensitive” just before her abduction. Her body was found later the same day in a wooded area, her chest and head riddled with bullet holes.

Three months later, Zarema Gaisanova, who was employed by the Danish Refugee Council, was abducted from her home in Grozny. Here is what the State Department said about her in its 2010 Human Rights Report:

“Amnesty International asserted that law enforcement officials carried out the abduction. Her whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) reported that eye-witnesses and other human rights organizations stated that a special security operation involving either Chechen leader Ramzon Kadyrov or a security unit named after him took place, in which Zarema Gaisanova was taken away in a military vehicle.”

And crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down outside her apartment in 2006, apparently by a contract killer. Politkovskaya was well known for documenting cases of torture, killings, and other abuses allegedly carried out by Chechen and Russian security forces during the long, grueling Chechen wars.

As to Kadyrov’s alleged personal taste in torture methods, Ms Swank might have gone here for this piece by C J Chivers of the New York Times. In the article, Chivers writes that Chechen exile Umar Israilov “described many brutal acts by Mr. Kadyrov and his subordinates, including executions of illegally detained men. One executed man, Mr. Israilov said, had been beaten with a shovel handle by Mr. Kadyrov…Another prisoner, the defector said, was sodomized by a prominent police officer and at Mr. Kadyrov’s order put to death. Israilov said he and others had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov, who amused himself by personally giving prisoners electric shocks or firing pistols at their feet.”

Of course, Israilov was assassinated eventually – in Vienna, where he had been living after fleeing Chechnya.

As I say, the list goes on and on…

One assumes that Ms Swank and her celebrity pals can read. And that they have access to the internet. Thus it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that Ms Swank was just some dumb Yank who innocently accepted a birthday invitation from that nice guy who runs this “Chechenya” place, which is how Van Damme pronounced it when he proclaimed to Kadyrov on stage, “I love you, Mr President!”

No. Ms Swank knew perfectly well of the allegations against Mr Kadyrov. And she went to his birthday party nonetheless.

I contacted her agent, one Jason Weinberg, who apparently is a major player in the creepy world of celebrity management. Actually, I left two phone messages, talked briefly to someone on his staff, and emailed him twice. And curiously, I got no reply.

Go here for a video of Ms Swank gushing to Kadyrov that “really, truly, for me this was a great honor to learn more about you and your country and what you’re building…And happy birthday, Mr. President!”

Interestingly, the Human Rights Foundation, an NGO based in New York, has reported here that they were assured by Mr. Weinberg in late September that Ms Swank had “no current plans” to attend Kadyrov’s party. Apparently, she changed her mind. Did Kadyrov offer her more money?

It should be noted that the BBC and other sources reported incorrectly that Kevin Costner attended the party. His publicist, Arnold Robinson, was quite emphatic in two email messages to me on Friday that Costner wasn’t even in Chechnya last week. As of today, it appears that the BBC has corrected the error.

My apologies to FPA colleague Vadim Nikitin – normally I don’t write much about the North Caucasus, which strictly speaking is Russia, his domain. But this wasn’t a story I could pass up.

  • Anon

    Good comment. One small point: Kadyrov is now “head” of Chechnya, not president.

  • Thor Halvorssen

    Superb reporting. Yes, I can confirm that Jason Weinberg emailed me that Swank wasn’t going. I emailed him back kindly asking him to let me know if plans changed inasmuch as the Human Rights Foundation ( was willing to provide urgent information for her to consider before entertaining Kadyrov. I never received said email. It is important to consider that a manager like Weinberg will retain 15% of monies earned by Hilary Swank. Consequently, he has every incentive to have her collect as much cash as possible. Swank may yet redeem herself. She may want to start by donating her lucrative fee to a human rights group that focuses on Chechnya. –Thor Halvorssen

    • Hi. Thanks for the compliment. You have a point about a possible financial incentive for Mr Weinberg, although we can’t really know with certainty his motives or those of his client Ms Swank. The whole episode just boggles the mind. I’d like to think that there will be some major blowback, but I fear not. ABC news did a good job on the story but I’m not sure if it got any air time – I saw it on their web site. Best wishes – Karl Rahder

  • Ian S

    Any special reason for targeting Hilary Swank in this? You mention Vanessa Mae, Jean Claude van Damme and “other celebrities”, but reserve the headline, and the majority of the bile and vitriol for her? If it’s the attendance at the party that’s the issue, then I fail to see why one person should be targeted more than the others?

    • Well, I wonder if “bile” and “vitriol” are really appropriate terms given Ms Swank’s decision to attend. But you have a valid point about my focus on Swank, and I wish I had attempted to contact Ms Mae’s publicist. The fact is that in the time I had for the blog post, it was a bit easier to focus on Swank and still make my point. Actually, I was going to slam Costner just as hard until I got a very firm denial from his publicist that he was in Chechnya, so that got him off the hook. And I trusted that the British press would rake Ms Mae over the coals without my help. That left Swank. (Van Damme’s celebrity status mystifies me and his persona suggests that it’s actually not that difficult to believe that he would attend the party. But Swank?? That took me by surprise.)

  • Ray Poe

    Money talks. I won’t be surprised that C. van Damme/H. Swank/V. Mae
    accepted the offer.

    During the “Marcos” hey day -they invited Van Cliburn to play the piano
    on one of their big party in Malacanang Palace, Philippines.

    Same things happen -when you have power, money & gu–

  • John Newcomb

    There must be quite a hidden world of getting celebrities linked up with dictators for big money. Canadian pop singer Nelly Furtado was outed about the $1million fee she got from a 2007 performance for Libya’s Gaddafi family, but at least she turned it over to a Kenya development charity recently. (

  • Fernanda T.

    So it looks like Hillary Swank apologized… but no mention of the money received.

    “Sorry I attended the bad man’s bday, but can I keep the cash, pretty please?”


Karl Rahder
Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.