On a warm morning in early August, a 68-year-old Chechen man named Said-Emin Ibragimov packed up his fishing gear and walked to his favorite spot on the west bank of the river that runs through Strasbourg, the city of his exile in eastern France. Ibragimov, who was a minister in the breakaway Chechen government in the 1990s, needed to calm his nerves, and his favorite way to relax was to watch the Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine, flow by as he waited for a fish to bite.
Ibragimov had reason to be nervous. The previous month he had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes in a criminal complaint he had sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to the Kremlin. Ibragimov had taken five years to compile evidence of what he considered crimes committed during Russia’s two wars against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya. During the second Chechen war, which Putin oversaw in 1999–2000, Russia bombarded the Chechen capital of Grozny and killed thousands of civilians. The U.N. later called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth.”
Ibragimov, who fled to France in 2001, was living out the last years of his life in political asylum but had continued to agitate against the Putin government, staging hunger strikes and sometimes one-man protests at sites like the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He had made his home in what he thought was a safe place—Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Court of Human Rights, and a city far from the countries on Russia’s borders over which Putin seemed increasingly determined to exert the Kremlin’s influence. But in his decade as a politician in Chechnya, Ibragimov had dealt with numerous threats, beatings and attempts to kill him, so what happened about an hour after he sat down on his folding chair on the banks of the Ill did not, in retrospect, entirely surprise him. As he stared at the nylon line he had cast into the sluggish current of the river, he heard a rustling in the trees behind him and, before he could turn, he felt a heavy blow to the back of the skull. It knocked him unconscious.
When he awoke, he tells TIME, he found himself blindfolded and in the custody of at least three men, all of them speaking Russian. Calmly at first, they urged him to stop “defaming their President,” but when Ibragimov told them in response that he “does not take orders from thugs,” the men began to beat and torture him, he says. The abuse continued over the course of nearly two days.
Ibragimov says the men spoke Russian with no accents—“like Muscovites,” he recalls, “definitely not Chechens.” He does not know who the men were, but from their accents, their words and their actions, he believes them to have been agents of the Russian government.
Ten days after the abduction, Ibragimov showed TIME the wounds he claims the men inflicted. Deep, yellowing lesions marked his chest—the result, he said, of lit cigarettes being pressed into his skin over and over again. Lifting the hem of his pants, he revealed several holes that had been gouged into his right calf by what had felt like metal spikes. The wounds were still oozing blood into the bandages doctors had applied when he later sought treatment. “They never let up,” he says of his attackers. “The torture was constant, constant, and it left me in no state to consider why this was happening.”
In a statement to TIME, the Kremlin said it had no knowledge of the attack against Ibragimov in Strasbourg or of his complaint against Putin to the ICC. “To our mind,” wrote Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, in the statement, “the words of Mr. Ibragimov that he was kidnapped and tortured by ‘agents of the Russian state,’ as he stated, put his mental health in doubt.”