Guilty by blood How state officials in Russia’s North Caucasus police, provoke, and persecute the people with ties to armed insurgents
In the early 2010s, officials in Russia’s North Caucasus started creating special commissions designed to persuade insurgents to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. In the past three years, these commissions have taken on a new role: helping people who left, either by mistake or out of foolishness, to join the Islamic State. Back in Russia, these individuals face prison time, if they ever return. Meduza correspondent Sasha Sulim learned more about how these commissions track down insurgents and their relatives, how they try to return these people to society, and why state officials in some parts of the region actually want nothing to do with the whole project.
Exile from Chechnya
Three days to leave town
On December 21, 2016, a Chechen police unit forced the family of 26-year-old Khava Bakharchiyeva to come to Prigorodnoe. About six miles outside Grozny, this was the Bakharchiyevs’ hometown. That morning, the police called Khava’s mother, Tovsari, and ordered all the men in her family to gather in the main village square. The manager of a local restaurant, Khava didn’t go to work that day. Instead, she stayed at home with her critically ill father, who needed to buy painkillers. Her father, Aslanbek Bakharchiyev, had stage-four stomach cancer. Setting aside everything, Khava and Tovsari accompanied the men to Prigorodnoe, where the security forces escorted even sick Aslanbek to a mosque.
Meduza spoke to Khava six months after these events, in mid-July 2017. By this point, the young woman, together with her mother and younger sister, were already living abroad in Europe. For security reasons, they asked to communicate by online messenger, not by telephone.
Khava says that her older brother, Zelimkhan, left Russia in 2014 with his wife and children “to work in Turkey.” “Before that, he’d traveled to work in Krasnodar and Moscow, and later came home and asked our mother for permission to go to Istanbul. He said he had a friend there who’d offered him a job at a factory,” Khava remembers.
For the next six months, Zelimkhan regularly phoned home, and then the calls suddenly stopped. “We started panicking, and we tried to reach him any way we could, until Federal Security Service agents showed up at our door and said that Zelimkhan was in Syria, and that he was now a wanted man,” Khaza says. When her brother finally called them, two months after he disappeared, he tried to assure his family that he was still in Turkey.
Every month (and sometimes more frequently), Chechen security forces (who never identified themselves or presented badges) summoned the Bakharchiyevs for interrogations. Each time, they asked the same questions: When did he leave? Why did he go? Where was he working? Why was he raised so poorly? Officials spent most of the time just insulting and humiliating the family, including their sick father, telling them, “It’s our rules and our laws.”
“First [police officers] offered money to my mom, and then to me, so that we’d go to Syria and bring Zelimkhan home ourselves,” Khava says. They refused: traditional Muslim women can’t go anywhere unaccompanied by men, let alone to an active war zone. Zelimkhan knew about the interrogations and police raids, but he continued to insist that he was living in Turkey.
On the way to Prigorodnoe, Khava still held out hope that everything would turn out okay: “I told my mom that we’d get a visit from Magomed ‘Lord’ Daudov, the chairman of the Chechen Parliament and [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadryov’s right-hand man. I thought they wanted to asked us again about Zelimkhan.” But “Lord” didn’t come, and the men in camouflage who did arrive immediately warned the Bakharchiyevs that they’d all “go missing,” if they refused to confess to their crimes.
Near the village’s mosque, the security forces organized a gathering of locals, saying it was by order of the head of Chechnya. After assembling a few dozen people, the men in uniform turned on a video camera. At the gathering, Zelimkhan Bakharchiyev was accused of organizing an attack on police in mid-December, reportedly killing as many as four officers.
“Our men were told that, by decision of the local residents, we had three days to leave the Chechen Republic. They said that people had been killed in Grozny on Zelimkhan’s orders, and now there was no place for us in Chechnya. Our fellow villagers supposedly didn’t want to live near us anymore, but there were actually very few of our fellow villagers there, and they, on the contrary, were against our expulsion,” Khava claims. But the relatives of the police officers killed in mid-December, she says, declared a blood feud against her family.
For the next six weeks, the Bakharchiyevs lived with distant relatives in Kalmykia. Then, on February 8, Aslanbek Bakharchiyev passed away. Chechen officials refused to let the family bury him in his home village. “Ingushetia agreed to let us in, and so that’s where father’s grave is — in Aki-Yurt. When they found out about this in Chechnya, they demanded that the Ingush dig up the body and send the coffin back to Kalmykia, but they didn’t listen to them,” Khava says.
While living in Kalmykia, the Bakharchiyevs kept getting threats from the Chechen authorities. “We realized that we’d never be left alone in Russia,” Khava explains. So she and her mother and her 16-year-old sister decided to leave for Europe. They spent several months at a refugee camp in Poland, but it turned out to be unsafe there, too. Khava says someone in the camp recognized them and told others that they were relatives of the terrorist Zelimkhan Bakharchiyev, and they started getting threats again. In May 2017, the Bakharchiyevs moved to another country.
“When we first got to Poland, I bought a local SIM card, so I could phone home. A little while later, my brother called me on this number, and I started to get hysterical. I started screaming, asking if he knew that father had died, and that we’d been forced to move away. He didn’t say anything, and then he just asked where we buried him. And I said, ‘So you’re really in Syria? You organized that terrorist attack?’ He admitted that he lives in Syria, but he swore that he had nothing to do with the terrorist attack. I — please forgive the expression — told him off, ended the call, and changed my number. I didn’t even tell my mom about the call. I don’t want any further contact with him, if he’s really there [in Syria],” Khava explains.
She says she often remembers how close and happy her family used to be. Every time he returned from one of his trips, Khava’s brother, still a cheerful man, would bring back gifts for his mother and sisters. Zelimkhan was so attached to his mother that he wouldn’t even sit at the table without her. Khava has no idea what happened to him. He was always a bit secretive, she says. “My brother is very religious. He studied the Quran, wore a beard, and went to mosque five times a day. Because of this, he was often called in [by the police], and sometimes they’d beat him,” Khava recalls.
Bakharchiyeva says her family has no plans to return to Russia. In addition to Chechen officials, the relatives of the police officers killed in December 2016 are also trying to track them down, she says. Even in Europe, Khava says she doesn’t feel safe. “They might find us here, too. I don’t leave my room unless necessary, since there are many Chechen families living here, and I don’t want people to know anything about us,” she told Meduza.
Forgiveness in exchange for loyalty
In the spring of 2003, Chechnya’s constitution entered force, Russia’s State Duma adopted a resolution granting amnesty to former rebels, and the Chechen authorities worked to return combatants to civilian life. “The local authorities offered militants the chance to leave the forest, guaranteeing their safety. But people couldn’t just lay down their arms — they had to go over to the government’s side,” Tatyana Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, told Meduza.
According to Lokshina, the only people who formally qualified under the amnesty program were members of armed groups who hadn’t committed any crimes. In reality, however, many of the amnestied rebels killed people during the conflict with Russia, and some of these men later joined the ranks of the “Kadyrovites” — the personal guard of the Chechen republic’s new ruler. Key figures in today’s Chechen leadership are veterans from this group, including (according to the newspaper Kommersant) Magamed “Lord” Daudov and several members of the “Sever” battalion, which has ties to the assassination of Boris Nemtsov.
Not all rebels took the government’s offer, and the amnesty was only good for a limited time. In May 2004, Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov (Ramzan’s father) first publicly stated that it wasn’t only militants’ relatives but also their neighbors who shared responsibility for terrorist attacks. These remarks were interpreted as a call to action, and within a day local Chechen authorities had already burned down two homes owned by families whose sons has fought with the separatists.
Ramzan Kadyrov continued his father’s policy. In 2008, he announced that families who still had relatives hiding in the forests were “accomplices to their crimes,” calling them “terrorists, Wahhabis, and devils.” According to Human Rights Watch, local state authorities burned down at least 25 homes in Chechnya between 2008 and 2009.
In 2014, after a group of militants attacked Grozny, Kadyrov said, “If an insurgent in Chechnya murders a police officer or anyone else, that insurgent’s family will be expelled immediately from Chechnya without the right of return, and their home will be demolished along with the foundation. [...] I declare officially that it’s the end of days when we start saying parents aren’t responsible for the actions of their sons or daughters.” After these words, “Kadyrovites” razed to the ground more than a dozen homes.
“The persecution of insurgents’ relatives is one of the main tactics that Kadyrov uses to suppress the activity of the armed underground. The practice of collective punishment — a kind of regime of personal tyranny — is one of the methods of managing Chechnya,” Loshina explains, saying that the relatives of people identified as insurgents by the government often encounter problems with welfare payments and employment. They’re also regularly detained by police, searched, and interrogated.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, another human rights worker and the former director of the International Crisis Group, confirms that women from the families of insurgents can lose their jobs and their young children can be kicked out of school. “Citizens also aren’t allowed to offer any help to these families,” Sokirianskaia told Meduza. “I know of a case where women collected help for a widow, and then the guys who donated to her were beaten severely.”
Even if an insurgent is killed or arrested, says Lokshina, Chechen officials continue to monitor and put pressure on his family — especially his sons, including minors. “There aren’t really many ways out of this situation. You can leave [the republic], but not everybody can afford to do this, or you can publicly renounce your own son or brother,” Lokshina explains. On Chechen television, you’ll often see news segments where parents call their own sons “family disgraces,” repenting before the relatives of killed police officers. In recent years, according to Lokshina and Sokirianskaia, the expulsion of insurgents’ families has become more frequent in Chechnya, apparently at the initiative of local community leaders. The persecution of the Bakharchiyevs was one of the most prominent such cases.
Violence from Chechnya’s security agencies contributes to the radicalization of the republic’s youth, says Lokshina, arguing that young Chechens “start dreaming” of Syria and ISIS as the only way to protest against the regime.
The cost for “even a whiff of Wahhabism”
For several months, Meduza tried and failed to contact the relatives of past and current Chechen insurgents. “If your correspondent wants [to come] here, we can’t guarantee her safety. If she wants to meet with the relatives of insurgents, someone will report her to the security agencies. We’ll blame ourselves later. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me,” one human rights worker in Chechnya said in a letter to Meduza (the individual asked not to be named or identified in any way, and refused to speak while being recorded).
The individual says that Chechens have appealed far less often to human rights workers over the past three years than they did before. “People are scared,” he said. Many Chechens who are labeled insurgents try to leave the republic with their families, but gaining refugee status in many European countries today is nearly impossible. “Over there, they think everything’s fine with us — that we have the happiest republic of all. But it’s hypocrisy. Everyone here fears for themselves and their children. Everyone is waiting for someone somewhere to sweep away this government — this entire regime of terror — but they’re afraid to speak out, because this is mercilessly suppressed,” the source told Meduza.
According to the human rights worker, the question of creating a commission to help insurgents and their families adapt to civilian life was never discussed in Chechnya. Local officials, on the contrary, sometimes advocate “eliminating citizens for even a whiff of Wahhabism.” In order to “detect this smell,” security officials regularly carry out raids, coming to markets and stopping motorists. They carefully examine the mobile phones of the people they detain (typically the children and relatives of killed insurgents), reading correspondence on social media, saved videos, and browser histories.
If they find any videos related to Syria or criticism of the government, they use the individual’s contacts to create a new list of people to detain. “It’s impossible to count all these arrests. And, of course, nobody goes easy on these guys. They bully them, and they beat them. These control measures are applied constantly to anybody who expresses the slightest dissent,” the human rights worker told Meduza.
He says imams in mosques conduct especially rigorous surveillance, and the adherents of certain Muslim beliefs less common in Chechnya are easy to identify by how they pray and how often they do it. Some Chechens flee to Syria, hoping to live there according to Sharia law.
“There have been cases where relatives traveled to Syria to bring their sons or brothers back to Chechnya. Everyone brought back was then locked up in prison, regardless of whether they committed any criminal acts,” the human rights worker explains.
Kheda Saratova, a member of Chechnya’s human rights council and a human rights worker with close ties to the Kadryov regime, told Meduza that four or five people have returned to Chechnya from Syria in the past several years. Asked where these people should go for help, Saratova said, “They’re all on file. Their return won’t go unnoticed by the security services.” She says women who spend time in Syria are treated “more gently” if they return to Chechnya, likely avoiding any prison time, insofar as they were forced abroad by their husbands.
The lists of Dagestan
The commission on reconciliation and silence
In 2010, by order of Dagestan head Magomedsalam Magomedov, the republic created a commission to help former insurgents adjust to civilian life. The commission was tasked with returning participants in the “armed underground” from the forest, whom the government called “foresters.” It’s impossible to say how many men belonged to Dagestan’s insurgency back then, but that year 685 people — insurgents, police, and civilians — were killed in local attacks and special operations. In its first few years, the commission reviewed more than 50 appeals, but these were mostly from civilians who’d been accused of aiding terrorists. The real insurgents never approached the commission.
In 2013, after Ramazan Abdulatipov took over in Dagestan, the commission on readjustment was renamed the commission on “reconciliation and harmony.” Abdulatipov said the new commission would continue to assist former insurgents, and now it would also settle land disputes and interethnic and religious issues. Members of the commission’s district offices told journalists in 2013 that they went from forest to forest and personally convinced insurgents to lay down their weapons. If rebels took the deal, their cases were reviewed in special procedures, and the commission petitioned the authorities for clemency. Most fighters returned to civilian life several years later, after serving time in prison. The men who committed no crimes as insurgents got off with suspended sentences.
After the elimination of Dagestan’s organized underground between 2013 and 2014, insurgents stopped hiding in the forests. Today, they live in towns and villages. A human rights worker in Makhachkala (who asked to remain anonymous) told Meduza that the insurgency has also changed demographics: today its ranks are filled not with grown men but with teenagers who form small cells. Usually, this is a small community or, for example, a small team of coworkers at some enterprise. Communicating with each other, they gradually become convinced that they should move to Syria. “In their minds, becoming a shakhid [suicide bomber] is the best thing that could happen in their lives,” the Makhachkala human rights worker says.
A mass departure of Dagestanis to Syria occurred in 2014 and 2015, when veteran insurgents and their supporters left for the warzone. After 2015, young people fascinated with the ideas of ISIS started leaving, too. In Dagestan, police immediately added these people to wanted lists, charging them in absentia with aiding and abetting terrorism.
The Makhachkala human rights worker told Meduza that Dagestan’s commission on reconciliation and harmony is ineffective. “If a real insurgent wanted to lay down his arms and appeal to this commission, he could be 100-percent certain that he’d face criminal charges, and this inevitably affects the number of appeals [submitted to the commission],” he says. Selim Magomedov, a local lawyer who works with the relatives of people who ended up in Syria by accident, agrees with this assessment. “The commission on reconciliation and harmony could play an important role in returning these guys to their homeland, since most of them made a mistake when they left for Syria and now they want to return to Dagestan,” Magomedov told Meduza. But this isn’t happening.
About a year ago, Magomedov says he got a call from the parents of several young women who went to Syria as combatants’ wives and wanted to return home after their husbands were killed. “There have been five or six such cases. The parents ask me to find out if their daughters can voluntarily surrender and avoid criminal punishment, since it wasn’t by their own will that they ended up in Syria. I asked our security agencies if they would guarantee that these girls wouldn’t be imprisoned. If so, there are several dozen such widows I could bring back home,” Magomedov says. But Dagestani officials refused to make any promises, saying that such matters could only be decided by the central command of the Federal Security Service. In the end, the women decided to stay in Syria.
Magomedov says those who do return to Dagestan — both the men and the women — end up with eight-year prison sentences (the minimum punishment for violating Russia’s ban on joining an “illegal armed formation”).
Throughout his legal practice, Magomedov says he only worked with the readjustment commission once. In 2012, his client — the wife of a wanted insurgent — was charged with providing assistance to bandits. The commission petitioned Dagestani officials for clemency, and the woman was sentenced to probation. Her husband was later killed in Dagestan during a special police operation.
Magomedov’s client and her relatives who left for Syria refused to speak to Meduza. Human rights workers in Dagestan also were unable or unwilling to help Meduza track down the relatives of current and former insurgents. Even the people with positive experiences at the reconciliation commission don’t talk to reporters, fearing that any contact could attract the authorities’ attention again. Members of the commission itself, both its central office and its local branches, also wouldn’t comment. Typically, these officials stopped answering phone calls after they promised to discuss in detail the actions of the commission and help put Meduza in contact with former insurgents who have returned to civilian lives.
Short pants and long beards
When it comes to dealing with potential insurgents, the authorities in Dagestan handle things a little differently than in Chechnya. In the early 2000s, local police started drawing up “preventative records.” Journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, who specializes in military conflicts and the North Caucasus, told Meduza that these records were unofficially known as “Wahhabi lists.” Most of the people added to these lists were individuals the authorities considered to be adherents of some extremist ideology. “If a man comes to the mosque for morning prayer, it’s got to be recorded. A normal person doesn’t come to pray that early in the morning,” Dzhemal says. “The main criteria used to identify these ‘listed men’ were short pants and a long beard.” (Salafis and other ultra-conservative Islamists often dress like this.)
According to Dzhemal, the people put on these lists are no longer limited to individuals detained in raids on Salafi mosques: now you can be added randomly as the victim of someone’s confession to police or as a name included to meet law enforcement quotas. Insurgents’ relatives are also blacklisted.
Dzhemal says ending up in the state’s records means serious restrictions on your civil rights. “The government can refuse to issue passports to these people, they’re constantly stopped at checkpoints, and each time they’re fingerprinted, photographed, and forced to surrender DNA samples. If they try to fly anywhere, they’re removed from the plane and questioned for several hours. And they’re the first to be questioned, anytime there’s a terrorist attack,” Dzhemal says.
“The records violate people’s right to freedom of movement and religion,” says human rights worker Ekaterina Sokirianskaia. “And in the Russian Federation, relatives aren’t responsible for the crimes of family members, which means that adding insurgents’ relatives to these lists is wrong twice over.” Nevertheless, she says, officials in Dagestan add not only adults but also children to the government’s preventative records, and afterwards social workers start coming to their schools.
In 2015, the head of Dagestan legalized the republic’s preventative records with an executive order, but he failed to specify the specific legal grounds on which people should be added to this list. That same year, for the first time ever, Ramazan Abdulatipov cited the official number of people in Dagestan’s preventative records: 9,000. At the same time, Dagestani Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov said there were actually 16,000 people on the lists. By the end of the year, the human rights group Memorial put this figure at no less than 10,000 people.
After Dagestan officially recognized its use of preventative records, citizens got the right to challenge their inclusion on these lists. In March 2017, during one of these lawsuits, the government revealed that these records consist of three categories. “Extremists” are no longer added to Dagestan’s records, Abdurashid Magomedov told the republic’s Supreme Court. It’s unclear, however, if the other two categories (“religious extremist” and “Wahhabist”) have also been retired. Even if police have stopped updating Dagestan’s preventative records, Sokirianskaia says she’s sure that all the information about the people in these records was transferred to the Dagestani Interior Ministry’s information center, meaning that the government’s system of control and surveillance remains active.
They never have a warrant and they don’t identify themselves
The family of 27-year-old Suaibat from Khasavyurt has spent the better part of the last seven years on Dagestan’s preventative records. She agreed to speak to Meduza, but only by online messenger.
At first, police only targeted Suaibat’s brothers, who frequently prayed at the town mosque, where they were often detained for questioning. “In Dagestan, they don’t like the guys who go to mosque and wear beards,” Suaibat explains.
Once in 2012, after evening prayer, her brothers Rasul and Idris were heading home from mosque. A family friend called Idris and asked him to pick him up on his way home. They picked up him, but when they were stopped at a checkpoint shortly thereafter, the friend opened fire on the police. “I ran from the car, and that’s the only reason I managed to escape. My brother was killed in the crossfire,” Rasul told Meduza.
For about a year, Rasul hid in abandoned houses throughout Dagestan, communicating with his family only through trusted individuals. He says he was too afraid even to come near his home village. More than once, he heard about insurgents who had disappeared or supposedly died in combat against the government. Rasul never saw his home again, and in January 2013 he managed to flee to France, where he’s still waiting for political asylum.
After the shootout, police raided the home of Rasul’s parents. In 2012, uniformed officials started regularly visiting their house. The most recent visit was in the spring of 2017. “They never show a warrant, and they don’t identify themselves. They just come in, wearing masks, and search the place, asking where my brother is,” says Suaibat.
In 2013, a year after Rasul ran away, police arrested Suaibat’s husband, Rustam. “They barged in without any explanation, turned the whole house upside down, and planted guns. I was home alone with three children, and I was pregnant. They shoved me, hit me with an automatic rifle, and because of this I almost had a miscarriage,” Suaibat says.
A few months before Rustam’s arrest, during the Ramadan holiday, two men came to Suaibat’s home. They drank tea with her husband, talked briefly, and then they left. Rustam never said who they were. Later, these men were detained on extremism charges, and during their interrogations, they shared the names and addresses of everyone with whom they had recent contact.
Suaibat’s husband was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing illegal weapons and aiding insurgents. The whole time Rustam was behind bars, police regularly detained and interrogated Suaibat. Once they picked her up on the way home from the hospital, taking a blood sample, photographing her, and seizing her tablet and mobile phone. Another time, Suaibat ended up at the Interior Ministry’s sixth department (the regional unit tasked with fighting organized crime). “I sat there, pregnant, and this police chief blew cigarette smoke in my face, insulting me, and showing me photos of some terrorists, asking if I knew any of them, provoking me,” Suaibat told Meduza.
Rustam came home from prison in September 2016. These days, he checks in with the police every month, reporting all his movements. “He can’t even get a bank card, much less find a job. Now doors are closed to him everywhere,” Suaibat complains. She and Rustam have four children now, surviving on child benefits from the state and Suaibat’s disability pension. Altogether, the family gets by on just 17,000 rubles ($300) a month.
Forced to cooperate in Ingushetia
A picnic in the mountains
Kheda and Mikail Kartoyev’s home is a few blocks from the main thoroughfare (named in honor of Stalingrad hero Khanpasha Nuradilov) in the center of Malgobek (a town in Ingushetia). To understand exactly how to reach their house, Kheda explained over the phone, which Mikail isn’t allowed to use, just as he’s forbidden from setting foot outside, as he is currently under house arrest.
Kartoyev stands at the gate to his home and suggests sitting under a canopy. During the winter, he parks his car here, but in the summer he puts out a big table, where his whole family gathers for lunches and dinners. Kheda and Mikail built their home near their parents’ house.
From time to time, the authorities in north Ingushetia carry out so-called “anti-terrorist operations.” On August 23, 2017, during one such operation, police killed members of an insurgent group based in Malgobek that officials believe is responsible for attacks against police officers and the shelling of a regional Federal Security Service building. That same month, FSB chief Alexander Bastrykin warned that threats from “terrorist groups, primarily ISIS, as well as bandit groups active in the North Caucasus,” are still “very real.”
But nobody needed to remind Kheda and Mikail that the government is concerned about terrorist threats.
While Kheda pours tea and arranges the snacks, Mikail explains how, in 2009, one of his friends from mosque invited him to go on a picnic in the mountains. “I knew there would be people somewhere nearby whom I don’t like. But I didn’t think they’d come,” Kartoyev recalls. That same day, Kartoyev’s friend asked him to stay “at the picnic” for another two or three days, saying, “There’s no way they’ll let us go right now.” His friend had brought him to a forest filled with insurgents, and Mikail tried to explain that he had a small child and a sick mother back home. “This isn’t right,” he said, and his friend answered, “I wanted you to see with your own eyes that it’s not like it is on TV. Maybe you’ll like it [out here].” But Kartoyev says he understood immediately that he wouldn’t like it.
He spent almost three months at the insurgent camp. At first, they promised to let him leave “tomorrow,” but then they started saying that the forest was “surrounded by the feds” and leaving was too dangerous. Later, they threatened to kill him. “They thought we’d get used to it, that we’d be afraid they’d kill us as we left the forest, and that in the end we’d join them,” Mikail said. This whole time, he and six other people were effectively the camp’s servants. They cooked, carried firewood, and dug trenches. He decided initially not to run away, believing that “surviving in the forest without a weapon, a compass, or any food would have been almost impossible.”
Mikail says the insurgents tried to win him over, at first. “Their guide led us around the mountains, took us on picnics, and once we even went out hunting. They left this person in charge of us, and he told us how our authorities are no good, and that we need to build a new state where everything will be according to Sharia law. But I knew that I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says.
Mikail’s friend (the one who invited him to the “picnic”) ended up joining the insurgents, and left for a base even deeper in the woods. Eventually, Mikail did decide to make a run for it. “I knew that the river should take me into town. Within a few days, I reached the village where my uncle lived, and he told my father everything,” Mikail says. When he got back, he surrendered himself to the authorities, saying, “If a person turns himself in, if he wasn’t involved in any crimes, and if he only got into this situation because of his own naivety, then he can hope for a suspended sentence.”
He was charged with aiding participants in an illegal armed formation. In order to escape prison time, he decided to appeal directly to Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the head of the Ingush Republic. “He told me, ‘It’s good you came in. We’ll help you, but you have to tell us everything,’” Mikail says, remembering their face-to-face meeting. This was in 2009, and Mikail got off with probation, but the authorities warned him immediately that they wouldn’t tolerate another such incident, and said they’d be watching him.
In the eight years since, Mikail hasn’t so much as jaywalked. “After evening prayer, I don’t leave the house. I don’t want to bother [the police],” he says. “They don’t even try to hide the fact that I’ve got no rights here. They tell me to my face: ‘God is in heaven, but down here we rule. The law is for you, but for us the law isn’t written.’”
After returning from the insurgents’ camp, Mikail says he wanted to turn over a new leaf. He and his wife had two more children (they’re both four years old now), and he looked for new work. But Mikail was only able to find a job after another personal appeal to Yunus-bek Yevkurov. “With a call from him, they hired me to be an ambulance technician with a monthly salary of 5,000 rubles [$86],” Kartoyev says. “But they fired me, the first chance they got. Even jobs with such low wages are worth their weight in gold around here. There’s very high unemployment in these parts.”
According to Russian federal statistics, Ingushetia does indeed have the highest unemployment rate in the country: 28.8 percent.
In 2013, tired of the endless police raids on his home, Mikail left to work in St. Petersburg, where he found a job in cargo transport, returning once a year during his winter vacation to visit Malgobek. In December 2016, he told his father that he didn’t want to live in St. Petersburg anymore, and that he wanted to come home. His father tried to talk him out of coming back, warning that the police would never leave him alone.
On January 27, 2017, Mikail was summoned for questioning at the Malgobek police station, where he was told that one of the men with whom he worked in St. Petersburg had returned to Ingushetia and joined an illegal armed group. The officers tried to get Mikail to join the group and help them destroy it. When he refused, they started threatening him.
Two weeks later, at 7 in the morning, the police came again to the Kartoyevs’ home. “I opened the gate for them, and they laughed and started searching our house. The whole time, I stood outside. One of the officers came up to me, tied my hands, and put something in my pocket,” Kartoyev says. It turned out to be a Khattabka-grenade (named in honor of the Saudi Arabian-born Chechen military leader and mujahid Ibn al-Khattab).
Mikail says he asked the police, “Guys, why do you need me?” and they told him directly, “We’ve got new managers, and we need to show them that we’re working, and you have a prior conviction for aiding [the insurgents].” Back at the station, the police asked him again to join the insurgents as a mole, but again he refused. Mikail spent February thru July in pretrial detention, until his lawyer was able to convince a judge to send Mikail for a polygraph test.
All this time, Kheda tried to contact Yunus-bek Yevkurov, but neither he nor the Ingush Security Council, nor the prosecutor’s office, nor Ingushetia’s Interior Ministry would respond to her letters. Kheda says her oldest son has suffered serious psychological trauma because of the endless police raids. “I’m afraid even to open a door too suddenly, or he immediately starts cowering and crying. I tell them [the police], ‘Why are you scaring children? Why do you come here?’ And they tell me, ‘Your husband is number one on our list of terrorists,’” Kheda tells Meduza.
“If they do decide to let me go, don’t be surprised if that same day they find something in my pocket all over again,” Mikail told Meduza.
The state’s human rights defense
Timur Akiyev, the director of “Memorial” in Ingushetia is the only human rights worker on the Ingush Commission for Adjusting Insurgents to Civilian Life. In theory, this government organization is supposed to help people like Mikail Kartoyev.
“The commission is supposed to show that the state is capable not only of punishing but also forgiving,” Akiyev explains. He says that the people who pass through the commission aren’t required to register with any government agencies, but they can expect to be the first individuals who are interrogated, whenever there is a terrorist attack. “But it’s better than prison or being killed during an arrest,” Akiyev argues.
The commission was created in 2011 on orders from Yevkurov, who wanted something analogous to what exists in Dagestan. To learn from their neighbors’ experience, Ingushetia sent Security Council Secretary Akhmed Kotiyev (who would later become the commission’s first chairman) and Ingush Human Rights Commissioner Dzhambulat Ozdoyev to Makhachkala, Dagestan. “The commission’s makeup has always been weighted in favor of the security apparatus, because the same was true in the Dagestani commission,” Akiyev says. Today, in addition to Akiyev and Ingushetia’s human rights commissioner, the commission’s members include representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, the Investigative Committee, the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry, the Youth Affairs Committee, the Bar Association, the Labor Ministry, and the Ingush Muslim Spiritual Authority.
The commission met for the first time in September 2011. According to Akiyev, many people were suspicious, believing its activities were just for show, but there was a genuine desire to help, he says. “Most of its work was focused on those considered to have been accomplices — people who found themselves among the insurgents by accident, who never committed any serious crimes,” Akiyev told Meduza. “Nobody said we’d be welcoming back those who killed or attacked police officers, though it was proposed that they’d get some help — just not full rehabilitation or a pardon.”
The readjustment process itself works like this: for example, a person uses his relatives to send a message to the Ingush Security Council saying that he wishes to surrender. The Security Council then sends the request to the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry, and the Investigative Committee, in order to ensure that there are no serious criminal charges against the individual. The applicant then makes a full confession, and is released on his own recognizance. The Security Council prepares the necessary information (personal data and criminal records from the Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry), and then schedules a vote on whether or not to support the applicant.
If the majority of the council votes “yes,” investigators can release the applicant without a trial, or they can refer the case to a court with the commission’s petition for a clemency. Akiyev says the judges in Ingushetia often listen to the opinions of the commission, even though it has no legal authority and its decisions are formally nothing more than recommendations.
According to Akiyev, the Ingush readjustment commission has ruled against an applicant only once since it was created. In December 2014, a majority of members voted against an application from Khadishat Ablakova, the 18-year-old pregnant widow of Beslan Makhauri, the killed leader of the Sunzhensky insurgent group. She was holding a handgun and a grenade when police raided her home and detained her. The commission determined that Makhauri’s widow provided no useful information to the government and never repented her involvement with Makhauri. As a result, she was sentenced to three years in prison.
The commission was reportedly most effective in 2012 and 2013, when insurgents wishing to surrender were even able to speak to the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, by telephone. Akiyev cites the commission’s official statistics: 17 people were “readjusted” to civilian life in 2011, twenty-one in 2012, and then 15 in 2013. After this, the numbers started to decline: there were just five applicants in 2014, and only one by 2016.
Akiyev says the sharp decline in the number of applicants is due to the diminished activity of Ingushetia’s armed underground. The insurgents haven’t disappeared entirely, however, and many have simply relocated from the forests and the mountains to the towns. “New insurgents” are usually people no older than 25, and their goal isn’t the fight for independence, like it was in Chechnya during the early 2000s, but the fight against the government. “They see a usurper in Russia and they fight for liberation from oppression and the right to live according to Sharia law,” Akiyev says, explaining the ideology that motivates the republic’s modern insurgents.
The rise of ISIS has also influenced the activity of insurgents in Ingushetia, siphoning away young people interested in the terrorist group’s ideas. Today, there are believed to be several dozen Ingush combatants fighting with ISIS. In the spring of 2017, Yunus-bek Yevkurov called on these individuals to surrender and appeal to the readjustment commission. But there have been few applications, so far.
“Readjustment is when a person is given a job, and allowed to return gradually to a normal life. But the commission just writes petitions for clemency,” says Magomed Mutsolgov, the head of the Ingush human rights organization “Mashr” (which means “peace” in Ingush). Mutsolgov told Meduza that he set out to work in the construction business, not defend human rights. Fifteen years ago, however, his brother disappeared without a trace. He says he believes that local law enforcement may have been involved.
Mutsolgov says he’s certain there are no insurgents in Ingushetia, and insists that only a few individuals from the republic are currently fighting for ISIS. “If 100 of our guys left to fight in Syria, the whole country would already know about it. It’s hard to cover up even a few isolated cases,” Mutsolgov explains, arguing that the Ingush authorities simply use Syria as a security excuse to keep people nervous and further restrict locals’ civil rights.
Police in Ingushetia also maintain lists of people who belong to “risk groups.” Agents regularly inspect Mutsolgov, any time he leaves or enters the country. “The officers who question me say that I’ve got some kind of mark on my passport,” he says. The questions are always the same: Where did he fly or where is he flying? And why does he engage in human rights work and journalism? “I’m not a criminal, and I’m not an extremist, but I do criticize the government, and I don’t like what’s happening in the region. I’ve been warned more than once that they’ll lock me up, and that the government can pulverize me and no one would even notice. But it’s useless — I’m not afraid,” Mutsolgov says.
Three years behind bars after a signed confession
One of the most notorious cases reviewed by Ingushetia’s readjustment commission was that of Khamzat Aldiyev, who spent more than 18 months in the forest with insurgents in the early 2010s.
Khamzat’s mother, Lyuba, spoke to Meduza at Mashr’s office in the town of Karabulak. She’d come from Sunzha, another town, with one of her other sons — the only one still living in Ingushetia. As she talks, Lyuba sits on a wide sofa by a wall covered in portraits of locals who have gone missing. She knows exactly where Khamzat is today: for the past four years, he’s been serving out a 13-year prison sentence at a federal penitentiary in Chuvashia.
Lyuba says her two other sons left Ingushetia roughly a decade ago, unable to tolerate the constant police raids, interrogations, and torture that occurred without any explanation. Today, one of these men lives in France, and the other has resettled in Egypt. Lyuba can only speak to her grandchildren by telephone, and she says the youngest of them hardly know any Russian.
Khamzat lived in the mountains for a year and seven months. “They bombed them there all the time, and they ran from the bombs, moving around, always hungry,” Lyuba says.
In August 2012, the authorities told her that her son had carried out a suicide bombing at the funeral of a police officer, killing seven people and injuring 15. Lyuba and her oldest son went to the morgue to identify the body. “I couldn’t bring myself to go inside, but my son went in. He said later that there were only two legs and a head — no body. My son realized immediately that these weren’t Khamzat’s legs. They were too long,” Lyuba says.
At first, Yunus-bek Yevkurov supported the theory that Aldiyev had carried out the attack, but after a few days he refuted it, encouraging Aldiyeva to make another effort to convince her son to leave the forest. Several months later, Khamzat contacted his mother, and they met at a small cemetery, where he said he was ready to leave the insurgency, if she could help him obtain a passport to travel abroad.
In June 2013, Khamzat signed a confession and filed an application with Ingushetia’s readjustment commission. On August 13, the commission agreed to recommend that investigators release him from any criminal liability. Ten days later, the government issued Khamzat a passport for domestic travel within the Russian Federation.
A month later, however, Khamzat was summoned for questioning and transferred to Urus-Martan in Chechnya, where he was charged with taking part in an attack on an armored personnel carrier in August 2012 that was carrying riot police in the Voronezh region. Officials produced video footage of the event as evidence against Khamzat, and the case went to trial. In November 2014, a jury found Khamzat Aldiyev guilty of endangering the lives of law enforcement officers, and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. Timur Akiyev says Aldiyev declared in court that he wasn’t involved in the attack, and the prosecution presented no clear evidence confirming his guilt. In the video played for the court, all the attackers are wearing masks.
“Maybe they’re hiding something down inside — some kind of grudge”
In February 2017, Yunus-bek Yevkurov created a new council to “socialize the families of participants and victims of armed conflicts.” The council is tasked with preventing the spread of extremism and terrorism among young people and helping the families of killed insurgents and security officials. The council includes religious and public figures, members of anti-terrorist commissions, and representatives of local government.
Describing the new council’s job, Nazran Deputy Mayor Magomed Bekmurziyev told Meduza, “We make sure that the members of these families face no prejudice in the workplace, and that their children aren’t harassed in school. If a widow had problems registering her child for preschool, or [for example] her children want to go to summer camp, we help.” Bekmurziyev assures that nobody in his office dwells on the circumstances of how these people’s relatives were killed or arrested. “We work with the aftermath. Maybe they’re hiding something down inside — some kind of grudge. For social stability, we have to ensure that these citizens don’t feel discriminated against,” Bekmurziyev explains.
Nazran’s deputy mayor says he’s personally visited 16 families in the past six months, going down a list of names given to his office by a supervisory agency. He couldn’t identify the agency, however, or say how exactly it compiles the lists. But he was happy to show the photo reports of his visits, saying, “My staff say they used to sense ill will from these people, but I didn’t witness this in any of the families.”
To prove his point, Bekmurziyev invited to his office Diana Korigova, the widow of a supposed insurgent killed seven years ago. She arrived wearing a thick, dark hijab. Meduza’s correspondent only managed to speak privately with Diana during a brief outdoor photoshoot. The rest of the time, Deputy Mayor Bekmurziyev was nearby, though it didn’t seem to bother Korigova.
Her husband was killed in 2010, during a special police operation. At the time, she was in the hospital, pregnant with their fourth child. “We had this attitude that a husband never involves his wife in his affairs. A woman stays at home and raises the children. But I know for certain that my husband was a decent and very educated person,” Diana says.
After her husband’s death, police came every few months to Diana’s home and questioned her. “They photographed me, the apartment, and my children, wrote down where they go to school, what they’re studying, where we go, and made sure that we weren’t planning to travel anywhere. When I asked them why they were doing this, they always answer that I’m the widow of a member of an illegal armed formation, and that they’re obligated to come see me,” Diana says, adding that she’s never felt any prejudice from her neighbors or her children’s teachers. In March 2017, her town’s local officials suddenly called her and offered help. “I never filed any formal request. I only wanted to find out where a plot of land owned by my husband might be, and they up and offered me a job,” she says.
Fifteen years ago, Diana worked as an economist. Today at 39, she hopes to work as a fitness instructor. She says she dreams of teaching her own classes at a sports club for women. Bekmurziyev said he would help Korigova on this new career path, and he promised to keep Meduza informed about her progress.
After some photographs near the water fountain across the street from the mayor’s office, Diana talks about her children. Her eldest daughter turns 16 this year, she has two boys ages 15 and 11, and a third son who’s just started first grade. The family often recalls its father, but no one ever mentions his death. “I’m not telling them that their father was killed. The Almighty decides everything in this life. He’s dead, and it doesn’t matter at whose hands this happened,” Diana says.
Recruitment in Kabardino-Balkaria
“Tell your son to sign the paper”
In 2014, Islam Gugov turned 19. That summer, he enrolled at the prestigious North Caucasus Federal University in Stavropol, studying in the oil and gas department. In late August, he left for classes in Nalchik (his hometown), only to emerge on September 7 in Istanbul. A month later, he crossed the Turkish-Syrian border, and for the next seven months he lived in territory controlled by an armed group (which armed group, he never found out).
When he was later interrogated by police, Gugov said an older student convinced him to go to Syria, assuring him that they’d be helping Circassian civilians. In the 19th century, the Circassians (the indigenous inhabitants of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia) were forced from the Russian Empire to Turkey, where the Circassian diaspora today numbers roughly 1.5 million people.
Gugov says he gradually realized that the trip had nothing to do with helping Circassians. In Syria, he helped rebels prepare food, and transferred the wounded to the hospital. Gugov never took part in any combat. In May 2015, he was able to get clearance from a commander to visit Turkey for a few days to see his parents. Once Gugov got out, he never returned.
Gugov’s parents didn’t know that he’d been in Syria; he wrote his mother every day, pretending to be in Turkey. His mother worried, asking why he went there, and tried to persuade him to come home. But Gugov always ducked the question. In the summer of 2015, after their son had already left Syria, the Gugovs flew to Turkey, and only then did Islam confess to his father and say that he wanted to go home, but was afraid of what would happen.
After returning to Kabardino-Balkaria, Islam’s father, Anzor Gugov, contacted the Federal Security Service, which agreed to speak to his son over the telephone. They later assured him that the maximum penalty awaiting him back home would be house arrest. With an official letter in hand, Anzor filed appeals to the commission on returning insurgents to civilian life, the Baksan urban administration head, and the minister for the prevention of extremism. Everyone promised Gugov “personal control,” but police arrested Islam the moment his plane from Istanbul landed in Nalchik on March 13, 2016.
Anzor Gugov is a gray-haired man, but he still looks youthful at 50. There are tears in his light blue eyes, and his voice seems to falter. “It’s probably because I take too many sedatives,” he says. When he sits down with Meduza’s correspondent, he brings his son’s lawyer, Eva Chaniyeva, who says, “When Anzor hired me, I saw how tortured and intimidated he was by the [government] officials. The first thing I asked him was if he planned to continue giving in to them, or if we were finally going to stand up for his son.” Anzor said he was ready to fight.
When Anzor flew to Turkey to collect his son, he brought a confession form — a mandatory requirement for Islam’s case to be considered in a special procedure. Before boarding the return flight, Islam meticulously completed the form, recording when he came to Syria, why, how he realized that he’d ended up in an illegal armed group, that he committed no crimes while among the group, and that he wanted to turn himself in to law enforcement. Chaniyeva says this document never made its way to officials, and the violations in the case against her client began the moment he set foot again in Kabardino-Balkaria. Islam told her that police said he was wanted internationally, when they detained him at the airport. Later, a Federal Security Service agent allegedly seized Islam’s confession, and the document that ultimately resurfaced in his case — a computer printout, not a handwritten letter — is something entirely different.
The Gugovs didn’t turn to Chaniyeva right away. Anzor only came to her for help in February 2017, when police charged Islam with a second crime, erasing any hope that the family might reach some agreement with the government.
When Islam Gugov returned to Russia in 2016, he was already facing felony charges for participating in an illegal armed formation. Investigators convinced him that “fell under a footnote” in the law and would be spared criminal responsibility, insofar as he voluntarily left the armed group and committed no other crimes. But a court nevertheless sentenced Islam to three years in prison. An appellate court for the Kabardino-Balkaria Supreme Court later overturned this verdict and called for a retrial, leading to new charges: participating in a terrorist organization and undergoing terrorist training (this second offense carries a possible life sentence).
According to Anzor Gugov, after the first verdict was overturned, Federal Security Service agents came to Islam’s home and tried to force him to testify against someone named Sultanov, who was then on trial in Rostov-on-Don for supposedly participating in an illegal armed group in Syria (Sultanov claims to be innocent).
“The agents brought me to jail and said, ‘Tell your son to sign the paper, saying that he saw Sultanov in Syria.’ But Islam told me that he didn’t know Sultanov, and wasn’t going to sign anything because he wouldn’t be able to look this person in the face. Then they warned us that we could expect new criminal charges,” Anzor says. “They screamed at me, and started to threaten my second son, who works in the police. And they told Islam that his father would die soon, and that they’d lock him up for the rest of his life.”
Anzor Gugov admits that he didn’t tell his wife about the second criminal charges. Even during the first trial against their son, she’d become seriously ill. Quite wealthy by local standards, Anzor has been working for more than a year now at a cannery. “My friend said to me, ‘You better work while you’re still breathing,’” Anzor recalls. “It’s hardest of all for him,” Chaniyeva says. “He was the one who told the family that they’d follow the law. And now the weight of everything is on his shoulders.”
Enslaved to the Federal Security Service
Created in 2012, Kabardino-Balkaria’s readjustment commission gets more and more applications from the relatives of those who left for Syria and now wish to come home. “In the near future, their number will increase,” says Valery Khatazhukov, a member of the commission and the director of the Kabardino-Balkaria Human Rights Center (a nonprofit organization founded in 2004).
According to Khatazhukov, few people even knew about the commission before April 2016: “It got to be absurd. Once I asked one of the members, ‘At least tell me one thing that’s going on over there,’ and he told me, ‘Oh I didn’t even know that I’m a member of such a commission.’” In the spring of 2016, human rights workers in Kabardino-Balkaria helped refresh the commission’s makeup, installing Khatazhukov and representatives of the prosecutor’s office, the Investigative Committee, the local Bar Association, the clergy, the human rights commissioner, and other government officials.
Local security officials tell Khatazhukov that there are currently about 100 Kabardino-Balkaria natives in Syria today, and several hundred more are supposedly living in Turkey. Russian officials treat all these individuals as potential extremists. “Among these guys are those who reached Syria, but fled after they saw what’s happening there. Or there are those who ran into representatives of the Circassian diaspora (which categorically rejects ISIS), and they changed their minds [about going to Syria]. And there are people who never intended to go there [to Syria], but they’re persecuted here [in Kabardino-Balkaria], nonetheless,” Khatazhukov explains. He says the local commission is prepared to consider these cases, but judges and law enforcement agencies have to start listening to the commission members’ opinions, before its work can be effective. Like in Ingushetia, the readjustment commission in Kabardino-Balkaria has no formal legal status, and neither courts nor investigators are required to respond to its petitions.
One of the two “Syrian cases” on which Kabardino-Balkaria’s commission has ruled involves Anzor Zhanguzarov. A local court later handed down the minimum sentence, which was still five years in prison. Zhanguzarov’s lawyer, a 50-year-old man named Artur Bezirov, says he’s his client’s second cousin. Bezirov told Meduza that Anzor traveled to Turkey in 2014 for work. “He was always suggestible, and right about then his father died from cancer, and Anzor was in a particularly depressed state,” the lawyer says, explaining how Zhanguzarov ended up in Syria. “They told him he could do more than earn money over there [in Syria]. They said he’d also find spiritual harmony.”
According to Bezirov, Zhanguzarov soon found himself in a training camp controlled by Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which at one time was affiliated with ISIS. “They probably saw there that he wasn’t capable of radical measures, and they assigned him to guard the camp and escort new recruits,” Bezirov says. A year later, in mid-2015, Hezbollah attacked the camp and captured Zhanguzarov. In December 2016, they handed him over to Russia’s Federal Security Service.
“He repented and admitted that he’d actually completed training at the camp, helping to identify others who completed the same training and actively participated in the work of the armed group,” Bezirov says. For this cooperation, Russian officials treated Zhanguzarov strictly “by the book,” only charging him with participating in an illegal armed formation. Bezirov was unable to say how his client identified other suspects to police, and asks that the issue be left alone. When asked how Zhanguzarov knows the men he fingered aren’t also falsely accused, Bezirov answers, “It goes without saying that they wanted to participate in illegal armed formations.”
A source familiar with Islam Gugov’s case told Meduza that the new evidence against Gugov emerged immediately after Zhanguzarov’s testimony. The same source accuses Artur Bezirov of collaborating with Russian investigators, and says Anzor Zhanguzarov has long been “enslaved” to the Federal Security Service. Zhanguzarov probably infiltrated the training camp intentionally, the source claims, in order to testify against others. The source told Meduza that Bezirov has already been penalized by the local Bar Association for appearing “unscheduled,” at the request of the Federal Security Service, at multiple interrogations. Bezirov told Meduza that this happened only once.
Ramzan Uzuyev, a lawyer in Nalchik, also says law enforcement are using Zhanguzarov’s testimony to bring phony criminal charges. Uzuyev believes this is happening because there are no real insurgents or accomplices in Kabardino-Balkaria, but “the local security apparatus has to justify its work.” He says the readjustment commission is useless, telling Meduza, “It’s impossible to discuss any service it might provide while the authorities are arresting people illegally, kidnapping them, and bringing false charges.”
In Uzuyev’s opinion, Kabardino-Balkaria’s authorities are responsible for driving locals to Syria and into the insurgency. “The first time, they just grab you. Then they come to your home and beat you up in front of your wife and children. No man can tolerate that kind of thing,” Uzuyev argues.
Human rights worker Valery Khatazhukov says the local insurgency’s activity has been reduced to a minimum, but economic factors prevent it from disappearing completely. “In Kabardino-Balkaria, there’s enormously high unemployment and an unresolved land issue, where residents in small settlements can’t lease part of their property to feed their families. And this is fertile soil for Islamist ideology,” Khatazhukov explains.
“A living example”
Khatazhukov says Kabardino-Balkaria’s readjustment commission has reviewed 25 cases since the spring of 2016, working mostly with people accused of providing assistance to insurgents. The review process is similar to what happens in Ingushetia: the applicant confesses, the case is considered in a special procedure, and then the commission petitions the court to sentence the defendant to probation.
Zaur Shomakhov, a lawyer in Nalchik who specializes in criminal law on aiding terrorism, says the readjustment commission should be involved earlier in the process, when the case is still at the pre-investigation or pretrial stage. Shomakhov also argues that the commission should petition the investigative agencies, not the courts. “Very often, people suspected of having committed a crime are afraid to appeal to police. In these cases, the commission should also help them readjust legally to civilian life,” he says. According to Shomakhov, the very fact that a person appeals to the commission at an early stage makes it possible to claim in court that they surrendered voluntarily, which can allow them to escape criminal prosecution. He says this legal clause has been largely ignored, but it can be “resuscitated,” if the commission acts quickly enough to establish publicly that an individual has officially ceased all criminal activity.
As a lawyer, Shomakhov has worked with the readjustment commission in Kabardino-Balkaria. In the winter of 2015, he represented the interests of a woman named Elvira (who asked Meduza not to reveal her surname). She was charged with aiding insurgents for providing food and cleaning to Yuri Bitsuyev, a member of an illegal armed group. She also let him use her Internet connection.
Despite the summer heat, Elvira wore a dark hijab when meeting with Meduza’s correspondent. She says she knew Yuri Bitsuyev’s mother, who several times borrowed money from her. In the summer of 2015, Elvira learned that Bitsuyev had disappeared, and a month later she bumped into him in town. “I told him that his mother was worried sick about him, but he said everything was fine,” she remembers. Sometime later, Bitsuyev showed up at Elvira’s home and asked her to do his laundry. “I’m a single woman,” Elvira explains, “and we agreed that I would leave his things near the front porch, so nobody thought anything [improper].”
By the time Bitsuyev showed up a third time, Elvira knew he was on the federal wanted list. “I told him that they were looking for him, and he said that everything was fine, and that he was ‘in the truth.’ This means he was on the right path, and that he supports the Islamic State,” Elvira says.
When Elvira told her mother about Bitsuyev and her growing fears, her mother advised her not to let him in, the next time he visited. “He came to me as a sister in faith. The first time we ever met, his mother introduced me as a God-fearing person who never refuses to help. He never demanded anything from me, and it’s nothing at all to wash some clothes or feed someone. We, Muslims, cannot refuse these things,” Elvira explains.
In November 2015, Bitsuyev was killed in a special police operation. A week later, officers raided Elvira’s home and found a grenade and several clips of ammunition (she says she doesn’t know how these items got there). Elvira spent the next three and a half months in pretrial detention. In February 2016, in the presence of journalists, Kabardino-Balkaria’s readjustment commission met to hear Elvira’s application. Her lawyer, Zaur Shomakhov, convinced the commission to petition the courts for clemency, and Elvira was ultimately sentenced to probation, escaping as much as a decade in prison.
“The court took into account her age [Elvira is 45], her illnesses, and her full confession,” Shomakhov explains. “The investigators established that she washed Bitsuyev’s things and let him into her home. They were monitoring him and saw that he visited her repeatedly. Elvira explained that she didn’t know at first that he was wanted, and later she began to fear for her life.”
In the verdict against Elvira (Meduza has a copy of the court ruling), she’s called “a supporter of an extremely reactionary religious-political branch of Islam.” “That’s something I still don’t understand,” Elvira says. “Maybe it’s because I wear a hijab and pray five times a day.” The court ordered her to participate in commission-organized activities on the prevention of terrorism and extremism. “She goes to these events as an example to the others, as a living representation of what can happen because of good-natured but ill-considered acts,” Shomakhov says.
Elvira says she never speaks at these events, but she attends them regularly: “Nobody there presents me as somebody who was an accomplice, otherwise how would it be any help? If everything was put out there, who knows how people might react. I don’t want to advertise it. I’m just here to live. I’m just here to work.”