Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has been given honorary citizenship in Russia's Chechnya republic by Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler who has been accused of human rights violations including the widespread torture of gay men.
Kadyrov handed Mr Salah a decree declaring him a citizen and pinned a medal on his chest at a dinner in honour of the Egypt team, who are training in Chechnya during the World Cup.
“Mohamed Salah thanked us for our surprisingly warm and good hospitality, great affection for the team and excellent conditions for their stay and training,” Kadyrov, who was banned last year from his beloved Instagram, wrote on Russian social network VK. “I'm sure our Akhmat club and the Egypt team will at some point hold a friendly match in Grozny.”
Human rights defenders have condemned the approval of Chechnya as a World Cup training base due to its crackdowns on LGBT people and activists.
Alexander Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, said he had questions for FIFA, the Egyptian football association, the Liverpool team and Mr Saleh about the dubious honour bestowed on him.
“It is unacceptable for a footballer who should talk about equality and acceptance of all people in football to receive an award from a man who rejects any equality and acceptance of LGBTi people, who is accused of persecuting gay people and human rights defenders,” Mr Agapov said.
At least five died after Chechen authorities rounded up and tortured hundreds of gay men in a witch hunt last year. One victim said he was kept for 12 days in a cell “doused in blood” and repeatedly beaten with a club until he could no longer stand.
Kadyrov told the BBC this month that these allegations were “made-up” and Chechnya does not have a single gay person.
He has exploited the arrival of the international football star to boost his own standing, even dragging Mr Salah out of bed to show him off to thousands of adoring fans at the local stadium.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said Kadyrov was “using the World Cup to gloss over the staggering repressions in Chechnya”.
The head of Human Rights Watch's Chechnya branch, Oyub Titiyev, was arrested in January and faces 10 years in jail for drugs, which he said were planted in his car by police.
“If Titiev is not released, it’ll be a dark stain on FIFA. It’ll mean that FIFA hasn’t fully used its leverage with Russian authorities to do the right thing,” Ms Lokshina said.