Two-time Oscar winning actor Hilary Swank and action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme may have played some nefarious characters in their time, but according to human rights groups, it was a real-life villain who happily welcomed the two celebrities to a big bash in Chechnya this week.
Both Swank and Van Damme, along with violinist Vanessa Mae, jetted off to the Chechen capital of Grozny Wednesday to attend a celebration that coincided with the thirty-fifth birthday of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, the man accused of ordering the abductions and deaths of rebel figures and having personally -- and enthusiastically -- participated in torture.
"Really, truly, for me this was a great honor to learn more about you and your country and what you're building," Swank said when she took the stage. "And happy birthday, Mr. President."
The festival featured a massive fireworks show, highly orchestrated acrobatic performances and none other than Kadyrov himself showing off some traditional dance moves.
Mae reportedly received $500,000 for her performance and when Kadyrov was asked where the money came from, he laughed and said "Allah gives it to us." It was unclear if Swank and Van Damme were paid for their attendance.
Kadyrov, appointed president of the Chechen republic in February 2007 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been the target of rights groups for years for allegedly directing intimidation, torture and murder of Chechen rebels and opposition figures in a brutal campaign to suppress the violent insurgency in Chechnya headed by Islamic terrorist Doku Umarov.
Ahead of the festivities -- which Kadyrov said were not for his birthday but an annual celebration for the city -- the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) sent a letter to Swank and Van Damme along with several other stars reportedly asked to attend the event, including Shakira, Eva Mendes and Kevin Costner.
"Chechnya continues to constitute a situation where serious violations of human rights are continuously committed by the Chechen authorities... Mr. Kadyrov's policy promotes the state of constant fear among the population and political opponents," the letter says. "Attending such an event on invitation of Mr. Kadyrov would disregard the seriousness of the situation with regards to his authoritarian ruling and the violation of fundamental human rights in the Chechen Republic. Therefore, we urge you not to attend the aforementioned event."
Shakira, Mendes and Costner did not reportedly appear at the event, and Shakira tweeted that she had never been booked to perform there at all. Representatives for Van Damme and Swank did not return requests for comment on this report.
While he was prime minister of Chechnya in 2006, Kadyrov was accused by Human Rights Watch of running secret detention and torture facilities "throughout Chechnya".
In 2008, he made "explicit threats" to burn down the houses belonging to families whose sons joined the Chechen insurgency, according to a U.S. State Department report on human rights abuses. Soon after, an "arson campaign" began in Chechnya.