An anti-Putin blogger was murdered in a French hotel, and the killing has the hallmarks of the Russian hit squad causing chaos in Europe
- French police believe the murder of Chechen opposition blogger in a French hotel last week was "politically motivated," an official briefed on the case told Business Insider.
- Imran Aliev, a 44-year-old blogger vocally opposed to both Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, died after his throat was cut in Lille, France last week.
- Police say they are hunting for Aliev's traveling companion, who disappeared shortly after the murder.
- The man had travelled with Aliev from Belgium to Lille on Wednesday, the day before Aliev was found dead.
- Aliev had been under police protection in Belgium because of "threats out of Russia and Chechnya over his opposition blogging," the official told Business Insider.
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French police believe the murder of a blogger from the disputed Russian region of Chechnya in a French hotel room last week was "politically motivated," according to a French police official briefed on the case.
The official said that police are now hunting for the man's traveling companion, who disappeared shortly after the murder.
French investigators wish to speak with the Chechen man who accompanied Imran Aliev from his home in Belgium to northern France via train last Wednesday evening, the official said.
The 44-year-old blogger, who vocally opposed both Chechen strongman ruler Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found dead the next morning by hotel staff.
His throat had been slit.
Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
Aliev was from Chechnya, the southeastern Russia region that has seen two brutal wars for independence from Russia in recent decades. The region is currently controlled by Kadyrov, with approval from Moscow.
"[Aliev] left Belgium Wednesday where he was under police protection because of threats out of Russia and Chechnya over his opposition blogging," said the senior French police official. The official cannot be identified in the media because they are discussing an open investigation.
"He was accompanied by another Chechen, who we have tentatively identified based on his travel documents," the official said.
"This identification could be a case of mistaken identity or even an illegal alibi but that we cannot determine [anything] until we have spoken with this man we believe is an important witness."
The official refused to identify the witness or confirm if his location has been determined.
European intelligence and law enforcement remain extremely concerned about assassinations of anti-Putin and Kadyrov dissidents throughout the European Union and UK. At least 15 people have been killed by Russian hit squads in the UK, including innocent bystanders.
These concerns have become more acute since the 2018 attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent in Salisbury, as well as the 2019 daylight assassination of a Chechen dissident in a crowded Berlin park.
The suspects in both cases have been linked to Russian intelligence services, as well as an attempted 2016 coup in Montenegro and the attempted assassination of a Bulgarian arms dealer through photo identification and public access to various Russian government databases.
"Obviously considering Aliev's history and previous threats we need to strong examine the possibility of a state intelligence service in this murder and we are collecting and analyzing evidence from travel patterns, electronic intercepts and other investigative tools at our disposal," said the French police official.
The official said that France has not yet contacted Russia for any assistance in the case.
A Belgian law enforcement official familiar with the case refused to go on the record, but suggested that Belgian authorities find the entire situation very suspicious.
"We had him under police protection for a reason," said the official, who refused to discuss the identity or movements of the witness being sought by France.
The official also refused to confirm if the witness themselves had been under Belgian protection.
"There were ... 'specific and credible threats' on his life from certain political sectors in Chechnya and Russia, which we could easily verify and concluded that protection was deserved."
Asked if the victim had notified the Belgian authorities of his plan to cross the border into France on Wednesday or of any security coordination was done with France, the Belgian official refused to directly comment.
"I cannot speak directly to whether anyone knew he planned to travel but I would suggest that arranging protection for someone just a few kilometers over the border would not have been an issue," the official said.