MOSCOW — Supporters of slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov dismissed suggestions Monday that his shooting could have been motivated by Islamic extremism.
Five men are in custody in connection with the Feb. 27 shooting, and all of them are from the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya, or other parts of the restive north Caucasus.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has said one of the main suspects, Zaur Dadaev, could have been motivated by Nemtsov's comments after the attack on French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Everyone who knows Zaur confirms that he is a deeply religious person who, like all Muslims, was shocked by the actions of Charlie and comments (of those) who supported the publication of the caricatures," Kadyrov said in a statement late Sunday.
In the Charlie Hebdo attack on Jan. 7 in Paris, 12 people were killed by two gunmen, who were later killed by police.
Nemtsov criticized the Charlie Hebdo attackers in an online post, saying that Islam was a "young religion that is current in its Middle Ages, and there is a long fight ahead to defeat the Islamic inquisition."
A long-time friend of Nemtsov and a fellow opposition activist, however, said he wasn't an enemy of Islam.
"The attempt to convince the public that Nemtsov was an obvious target for Islamic radicals doesn't stand up to criticism," Ilya Yashin told the Associated Press on Monday.
"This version is extremely convenient for (President) Vladimir Putin, because it takes both him and his inner circle out of the line of fire."
Five men, including Dadaev, have been detained in connection with Nemtsov's killing. They all appeared in a Moscow court Sunday, where Dadaev and another suspect were charged in connection with shooting Nemtsov as he walked across a bridge near the Kremlin. The other three were jailed pending charges being filing.
One of the judges said Dadaev had acknowledged involvement, but Dadaev didn't admit guilt in the courtroom, according to news agencies.
Footage from state channel NTV shows Dadaev turning to the camera and saying "I will say to you: I love the Prophet Muhammad."
Dadaev had been an officer in the Chechen police troops, though Kadyrov said he had left the forces under unclear circumstances. The other suspect who was charged, Anzor Gubashev, denied being guilty.
Supporters of Nemtsov, however, believe that by casting blame on Islamic extremists, investigators are attempting to shift blame away from the government and onto a minority which remains controversial among many Russians.
Chechnya suffered two intense wars over the past two decades between Russian forces and separatist rebels increasingly under the sway of fundamentalist Islam. That reinforced the stereotype among many Russians of Chechens as violent extremists.
"The 'Chechen trail' appears to be more of a cover-up operation, and a clumsily executed one at that," Vladimir Milov, another opposition activist, wrote Monday.
Opposition leaders bristled further when Kadyrov was awarded the Order of Honor on Monday by the Kremlin, which is given in recognition of achievements in public life. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told Russian news agencies in comments carried Monday that the award had been in the works several months, and the timing was a coincidence.
"It is a clear signal to those in the security services: Kadyrov is my guy, don't you dare touch him," said Yashin. "It's clearly a kind of political protection, a political roof over Kadyrov's head."
Putin also granted a medal to Andrei Lugovoi, who British police accuse of poisoning former security services agent Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006. Now a member of Russian parliament, Lugovoi denies the charges, and Moscow has refused to extradite him and a fellow suspect to face trial in Britain.
In his comments Sunday, Kadyrov also praised a man called Beslan Shavanov as a "brave warrior." Russian news reports Sunday cited unnamed sources as saying a man by that name was also a suspect in the Nemtsov case, but had killed himself with a grenade after police blocked his apartment in Chechnya's capital, Grozny.
There was no official comment from Moscow on the reports.
Shavanov's uncle, Movsud Tovkhagov, told The Associated Press by phone that his nephew had traveled to Moscow to treat stomach problems on Feb. 20 and had returned a week later to Chechnya.
"I am 100 percent sure that suspicions that my nephew (participated in) the murder of Nemtsov have no basis," he said.
Tovkhagov said that he didn't know the details of Shavanov's death, but said the family had been told by authorities that his body was being held by the Investigative Committee. He said that Shavanov was working for the Chechnyan Interior Ministry at the time of his death.
Olga Tregubova in Moscow, and Musa Sadulayev in Grozny, contributed reporting.