MOSCOW The Kremlin-backed head of Russia's Muslim Chechnya region has praised assailants who targeted women with paintball pellets for going bareheaded, prompting outrage Thursday from rights activists.
Eyewitnesses have said men in camouflage, often worn by police and security forces in the volatile region, fired paintball guns from cars about a dozen times last month at women who were not wearing headscarves.
"I don't know (who they are), but when I find them I shall announce my gratitude," Ramzan Kadyrov said in a weekend interview on state-run regional television channel Grozny, according to a Reuters translation of the remarks in his native Chechen.
The attacks highlighted tension over Kadyrov's efforts to enforce Muslim-inspired rules that in some cases violate Russia's constitution.
Russian rights group Memorial, which has blamed the attacks on law enforcement officers, said in a statement on Thursday: "Kadyrov's interview clearly demonstrates the restriction on women's rights in Chechnya -- he openly defends unlawful acts."
Kadyrov called the victims of the paintball attacks "naked women" who had most likely been forewarned.
"Even if they were carried out with my permission, I wouldn't be ashamed of it," he said of the paint-pellet attacks.
In the same interview, Kadyrov lambasted journalists and called rights activists "enemies of the people," a Soviet-era term for traitors.
Human rights groups have alleged links between Kadyrov and killings of his opponents in Russia and abroad, and blamed forces under his control for abductions and torture. He has consistently denied the accusations.
Critics say that in return for keeping relative calm in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, the Kremlin allows Kadyrov to run it like a personal fiefdom and use his personal militia to enforce his decrees.
They also say forces under Kadyrov's control impose his vision of Islam in Chechnya, where alcohol is all but banned, women must wear headscarves in state buildings and polygamy is encouraged by authorities.
"Of course, Moscow will not take any notice of Kadyrov's verbal attacks. Kadyrov holds Chechnya together and he is rebuilding it," political commentator Matvei Ganapolsky told Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Against the backdrop of an Islamist insurgency across the North Caucasus -- mainly Chechnya and the neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan provinces -- the Kremlin watches uneasily as federal authority yields to Islamic tenets and sharia law.
Revered by rebels and ordinary citizens alike, sharia law is gradually eclipsing Russian law across the region. Earlier this week authorities in Ingushetia officially tripled the "kalym," the price a groom must pay his prospective bride's family.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Myra MacDonald)