An avuncular portrait of a smiling Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed prime minister of Chechnya, gazes across Grozny's freshly rebuilt Minutka Square, an oasis of eerie quiet in a city trying to rid itself of the rubble of two brutal wars.

"We're proud of you!" reads one of many flattering pro-Kadyrov slogans that festoon the war-scarred capital.

But the 30-year-old leader, de facto ruler of Russian-controlled Chechnya, is far from being universally admired.

Colleagues of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya have suggested he may have ordered her killing, and human rights groups allege he has overseen horrific torture sessions.

Kadyrov's subordinates, an army of 10,000 troops nicknamed Kadyrovites because of their loyalty to him, stand accused of torturing, kidnapping and murdering anyone who has obstructed the Kremlin's goal of restoring order.

Last July, they hung the severed head of a prominent anti-Kremlin rebel from a gas pipe in the village of Kurchaloi as a stark warning to their enemies.

And, last month, a special group of Chechen "policemen" shot dead Movladi Baisarov, a prominent critic of Kadyrov, in the centre of Moscow, 1000 miles north of Chechnya.

A month earlier, Baisarov, himself accused of being involved in murders and kidnappings, had given an outspoken interview about Kadyrov in which he appeared to foresee his own demise.

"He Kadyrov acts like a medieval tyrant," claimed Baisarov. "If someone tells the truth about what is going on, it's like signing his own death warrant."

On November 18, Baisarov was shot dead on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt while apparently resisting arrest. Many believe he was eliminated because he knew too much.

"Ramzan acts with total impunity," Baisarov said before his death. "I know of many people executed on his express orders and I know exactly where they are buried."

The frequency and seriousness of such allegations has prompted Kadyrov's detractors to argue that Moscow has made a Faustian pact that it will come to regret.

Inside Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov enjoys solid support, albeit of a kind engineered by creating a powerful cult of personality around him.

Wherever you look in Grozny, a sometimes unnaturally quiet city steadily coming to life after more than a decade of conflict, Kadyrov's stare stalks you.

In person, he exudes raw charisma and has a regal presence, an attribute that has led elements in the Russian military to dub him "King Ramzan".

A squat, powerfully built man, he swaggers, with his powerful boxer's shoulders almost bursting out of the pinstriped suits he likes to wear.

He is a "mujik", a man's man who uses colourful language, tells things as he sees them, and who smiles wryly every time he hears a distasteful allegation against him.

He has courted the boxer (and convicted rapist) Mike Tyson as a friend, has his own private zoo of wild animals (including a wolf and a tiger), advocates polygamy, has banned gambling and has denied featuring in a home movie put on the internet earlier this year that showed a man of his appearance frolicking in a sauna with two prostitutes.

Controversially, he is also a former separatist rebel who fought against the Russians only to cross the Rubicon and join them.

During a meeting with the Sunday Herald in his Grozny office recently - one of the first meetings with British media since becoming Chechnya's premier in March - he dealt frankly with the allegations against him.

He emphatically denied involvement in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who made a name for herself investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block on October 7. Police are still looking for her killer.

"Why would I have killed her?" said Kadyrov. "She used to write bad things about my father the former president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov and if I had wanted to I could have done something bad to her at that time. Why now?"

Kadyrov urged investigators to look instead at UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who he suggested had ordered her murder to create instability and blacken Russia's name.

"She would have done better to stay at home and be a housewife," he mused. "But that her job and murder was her destiny. What can you do? The Almighty is the judge."

Politkovskaya was one of Kadyrov's fiercest critics, calling for him to be removed from power and put on trial for his alleged crimes. "He is an extremely cruel man," she told Ekho Moskvy Radio before her death.

"I have met several people who told me Kadyrov personally tortured them in his home in the village of Tsentoroi. They said Ramzan and the other man with him used elaborate torture. For example, they peel narrow strips of skin off a person's back."

Kadyrov has a ready explanation for such allegations, usually put forward by human rights groups rather than journalists.

"I don't consider most of them human rights activists but con artists playing on people's feelings for their own glory. Why would Kadyrov need this torture and murder? I've lost everything for the sake of creating order. I've lost the most precious person in my life in 2004. Let them come up with proof rather than just words."

Much of Kadyrov's power base stems from one man: Russian president Vladimir Putin.

When his father, Akhmad, was killed on May 9, 2004, by a bomb exploding beneath him as he reviewed a military parade in Grozny, the bereaved Ramzan appeared on Russian state TV hours later alongside a sombre-looking Putin.

It was interpreted as a vote of confidence in the young Chechen, a feeling reinforced when Kadyrov was awarded a Hero of the Russian Federation medal, one of the Kremlin's top honours.

It comes as no surprise that Kadyrov is unflinchingly loyal to Putin, who is due to step down in 2008.

"Russia has never had such a president," gushes Kadyrov. "If I had my way I'd make him president for life. He and his team are the only ones who can maintain Russia's might and its greatness."

Though already Chechnya's prime minister and wielding huge power, it is an open secret that Kadyrov covets the presidency of Chechnya, a position currently held by mild-mannered former policeman Alu Alkhanov.

His face contorts with displeasure at the suggestion he may have become the object of an unhealthy cult of personality. "Personality cults are an insult to Islam," he says. "It's non-friends who spread such speculation. I am a son of the Chechen people. I am no different from anyone else."

But his image makers appear to have other ideas; they have styled him as a kind of Chechen Ernesto Che Guevara.

With his bearded, rugged features, black beret and steely stare, the Ramzan Kadyrov stencilled on his followers' T-shirts bears more than a passing resemblance to the Argentinian-born revolutionary. Indeed, to them he is an inspirational freedom fighter.

Lest anyone forget, reminders that he is Chechnya's saviour are everywhere.

Grozny's main thoroughfare, Victory Prospekt, has been renamed Kadyrov Prospekt, and the city's centrepiece is a statue to his late father, a monument guarded round the clock by a two-man Kalashnikov-wielding guard.

At times, Chechen state TV feels like Ramzan TV. "Ramzan: A Hero of Our Time. Discuss" urges one channel of schoolchildren taking part in a nationwide essay competition.

Minutes later, to the accompaniment of rousing Top Gun-style music, the same channel presents this year's candidates for Person of the Year. No prizes for guessing who gets prominent billing.

His thick-set features loom over schoolchildren in playgrounds.

"Ramzan is a role model for youth and a worthy son of his people," a giant banner plastered to one school's facade reads.

Indeed, nobody seems to have a bad word to say about him.

Vaaka Zakayev - who has lived with his wife and five children in a refugee hostel in Grozny without running water or a proper toilet for the past four years - is typical. He says he can't get compensation for his bomb-destroyed home but he doesn't blame Kadyrov for that or his basic living conditions.

"If Ramzan knew our situation he would fulfil his obligations," he told the Sunday Herald. "But they his advisers don't tell him. Hes a good man."

Anzor Muzaev, rector of Grozny's main university, is impressed. "We've had many heroes and leaders in our history, but he's the first person to care for every member of the population."

Even Zargan Nushaeva, who says her 18-year-old son was kidnapped by Russian soldiers in 2001 and she can't find out what happened to him, doesn't bear Kadyrov ill will.

"We're relying on him. We have hope in him. I have a good opinion of him," she said.

If his fans are to be believed (he has his own fan club), he has found a way of promoting Chechnya while avoiding never-ending conflicts.

After two brutal wars, 100,000-250,000 deaths, one million newly created refugees, numerous war crimes, and the aerial and artillery bombardment of civilian cities, Kadyrov is portrayed as the man rebuilding broken lives and broken homes.

But, like his personality, his past is contradictory and complex.

In the first Chechen war of 1994-96, he led a unit of rebel fighters inspired by his father, a senior Muslim cleric who famously called for a jihad against the Russians and for every Chechen to kill 150 Russians.

In 1999, the year Russia launched the second Chechen war, father and son had a dramatic change of heart and switched sides to join their former enemies in a battle against rebel forces they claimed were more interested in radical Islam than independence.

Today, Kadyrov's Kremlin-friendly advisers present that decision as an honourable choice that helped douse the flames of war while allowing the Chechen people to claim a large measure of autonomy from Moscow.

Most importantly, in both Russian and Chechen eyes, Kadyrov is the guarantor of peace, no matter how fragile.

Kadyrov insists that Chechens have turned their back on war and the future is bright. The question is: will he live long enough to see it?

Chechen leaders such as Kadyrov's late father have a habit of dying violently and the self-styled hard man of the Caucasus has many enemies.

If Kadyrov decides to slip the Kremlin's leash, as some analysts believe is inevitable, many parts of the Russian military would relish the opportunity of bringing him to heel.

But that, they know, would probably trigger a third Chechen war.

"The situation seems calm on the surface, but it's not. It could blow up at any minute," said Timurlan Ibailov, part of a huddle of unemployed men at the marketplace in the town of Argun.

"We'll only know things are normal when people stop carrying guns. But look around. Almost everyone has a gun."