Correction Appended: Nov. 4, 2009
Every year on the first Tuesday in November, Australia pauses at three in the afternoon to watch it's most famous equestrian event the Melbourne Cup. This year the excitement began prematurely when, on Sept. 18, part of the international lineup of horses was revealed in the daily Sydney Morning Herald. Racing fanatics were not the only ones to pay heed, and some Australian politicians were shocked at this year's contenders.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a controversial figure in Russian politics whose regime human rights groups have linked to a variety of human-rights violations, has entered two horses to participate in Melbourne's Spring Carnival, a series of thoroughbred horse races that are held through October and November. His stallion Bankable is set to start in the $655,000 LKS Mackinnon Stakes race on Oct. 31, and his gelding Mourilyan will race in the Melbourne Cup itself. Both horses are about to be quarantined in England before flying to to Australia. If Australian authorities don't intervene which some politicians here are saying they should they are due to arrive in Australia on Oct. 10.
Kadyrov inherited the Chechen presidency in 2007 from his father, who was assassinated three years earlier in 2004. He has been ruling the volatile region in Russia's North Caucasus since, alternately garnering praise for bringing stability to the region and criticism for enshrining new laws banning alcohol production and gambling whilst legalizing polygamy. Tatiana Lokshina, the deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch in Russia, told TIME that Chechnya's population is "paralyzed by fear" under Kadyrov's government. She says Kadyrov's administration is using the ongoing battle against separatist insurgents as an excuse for what she calls a violent regime. "[His government] kidnaps and tortures the families of alleged insurgents," says Lokshina. Human Rights Watch has also recently reported on the Kadyrov government's "heinous" practice of punitive house burning, which his administration, when questioned about by Reuters in July, did not comment on.
This year, Russian human rights group Memorial also accused Kadyrov's regime of being connected to the July murder of human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova in the local media. No charges have been brought against Kadyrov or members of his administration in the case, and he has denied any involvement, telling press that he would investigate the murder. On July 17, Kadyrov's lawyer told Interfax that the president is suing Memorial for defamation. "Considering the cumulative information that is available about Kadyrov's rampant human-rights abuses, it's up to Australians citizens to decide if they want his horses or any other traces of his presence in their country," says Lokshina.
For some, the answer is clear. Australian Greens Party Senator Bob Brown has said that hosting Kadyrov's racehorses in the $4.95 million Melbourne Cup, could be "the lowest point of Australia's sporting history." Brown is running a campaign to ban the horses from entering the country. "He shouldn't be benefiting from our Spring Carnival. The prospect of his horses winning the Melbourne Cup is nauseating," Brown told TIME.
Kadyrov's racehorses have already found fortune at prominent equestrian events. Bronze Cannon, a four-year-old thoroughbred, won the prestigious Hardwicke Stakes race at Ascot in July. His Indian Jameson stallion won the honor prize at the Moscow Hippodrome's 175th anniversary. Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda reported on July 18 that Kadyrov had entered no less than 11 racehorses into the Moscow event, all of which, Kadyrov told the paper, belong to Chechnya, as do the two horses entered into the Spring Carnival. With Kadyrov's official income declaration of an $110,000 salary and a 36 square-meter apartment in Grozny, Kadyrov's penchant for racing has at least raised a few eyebrows in the Russian media. A spokesman for Victoria Races said the cost of sending Mourilyan to the Melbourne Cup alone is in the six figures. Kadyrov's spokesperson, Alvi Karimov, refused to comment on any of Kadyrov's racehorses or on Mourilyan's entry in the Melbourne Cup to TIME on Sept. 21.
While Mourilyan's slated appearance at this year's Melbourne Cup seems to be causing headaches for Australian politicians and Spring Carnival organizers, the horse's British trainer Gary Moore told TIME that he "wouldn't be fussed" if it was disqualified for political reasons. Purchased by Kadyrov from the Aga Khan in 2008, Mourilyan has seen more of the world than most Chechens, and has competed in Ireland, Dubai, and the United Kingdom when it competes overseas he is trained by a South African trainer . Moore says that Mourilyan has a "decent chance" of winning if the ground is soft, but "if it's hard ground, he will struggle." As for his controversial owner, Moore says that he's has only communicated with Kadyrov via a translator a few times in the past year. "I don't know much about him," said Moore. "Honestly, I wouldn't recognize him [Kadyrov] from a bar of soap."
The original version of this story incorrectly identified the day of the running of The Melbourne Cup.