Last week, actress Hilary Swank stood on a stage in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and offered a "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who critics say has used terror and violence to silence critics and pacify the southern Russian republic.
Her appearance drew protests from the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Foundation, which issued statements calling on Swank and other celebrities to return any gifts and payment they received.
Swank now says she “deeply regrets” attending the Oct. 5 gala -- which featured a concert, sword dancers and laser show -- and is donating her personal appearance fees to various charities.
Swank was one of a number of celebrities –- including actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, singer Seal and violinist Vanessa-Mae -- who reportedly attended the lavish event, which was billed as a celebration of Grozny City Day and the opening of a new residential and commercial complex.
“Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a grim record of abuse,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement this week. “When stars get paid to turn up to party with him, it trivializes the suffering of countless victims of human rights abuses.”
Swank’s representatives said Thursday that she decided to attend because she was advised that the construction project was instrumental in the creation of jobs and other opportunities in Grozny, a city that was flattened in two recent separatist wars.
“When she arrived at the event, its organizers requested that she wish the president a happy birthday, which happened to coincide with the opening,” they said in a statement emailed Thursday to news organizations. “Not wanting to be rude, she obliged. She was unaware, at the time, of the allegations against President Kadyrov that have been made by various human rights groups.”
“I deeply regret attending this event, which has thrown into question my long and deeply held commitment to the protection of human rights,” Swank said in the statement.
Sarah Wasserman at the Human Rights Foundation said the group had tried to brief Swank before the trip but “her manager cut us short and responded that Hilary had no plans to attend.”
“It’s outrageous,” Wasserman said in a statement Thursday. “This isn’t a movie, this is real life: Women are treated as objects in Chechnya, gays are executed, human rights defenders are routinely killed. Meanwhile, Hollywood royalty shows up, collects cash, and then says ‘sorry.’ ”
Representatives for Seal, Vanessa-Mae and Van Damme could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday.
-- Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles
Photo: Actress Hilary Swank at an Oct. 5 concert in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Credit: Musa Sadulayev / Associated Press