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.
The same year, Austrian lawyers working on behalf of the ECCHR filed a complaint against Kadyrov on charges of widespread torture. Key to their case was the eyewitness testimony of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard of Kadyrov's who said that not only did he watch Kadyrov torturing others, but said he was personally subjected to electric shock at Kadyrov's hands. Kadyrov laughed while torturing him, Israilov said according to the ECCHR.
After escaping to Austria and going to the ECCHR, Israilov told the group he and his family had been threatened by a man claiming to have been sent by Kadyrov. In January 2009, Israilov was shot dead in the streets of Vienna, after which Austrian police said "circumstantial evidence" linked Kadyrov to the killings. Kadyrov denied all responsibility for the crime.
Just a few months after Israilov's murder, police in the United Arab Emirates said they believed a close associate of Kadyrov's to be involved in the murder of a former Chechen general who had fallen out with Kadyrov, according to the New York Times.
"We remain gravely concerned... about the extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances committed with impunity by the forces of Chechen President Kadyrov and others," Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said during a visit to Washington, D.C., in March.
Most recently, Chechen media loyal to the rebel insurgency, Turkish press and the families of the victims have linked Kadyrov and Russian intelligence to the killings of three rebel Chechen militants in Istanbul last month, alleging one of the men involved in the assassinations was a close associate of Kadyrov's. A spokesperson at the Russian embassy in the U.S. told ABC News after the murders that the allegation the Russian government was involved was "pure speculation".
In addition to alleged political crimes, in 2009 Kadyrov defended the murder of seven women, saying they deserved to die in the honor killings for their "loose morals," according to Russian press.
"If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed," Kadyrov told reporters at the time.
Officials in the Russian embassy in the U.S. and officials based in Grozny did not immediately return requests for comment on this report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.