After massive Moscow fight, FSB detains Muslim blogger for terrorism under strange circumstances
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has accused the blogger Alibek Mirzekhanov of participating in terrorism after Mirzekhanov was arrested following an enormous fight in the Moscow café Neolit. The FSB claims Mirzekhanov recruited fighters for the ongoing war in Syria. He was charged under two different statutes: one that regulates participation in terrorist organizations and can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years along with a statute that penalizes the recruitment of terrorists and carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
Mirzekhanov is from Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Northern Caucasus. His Instagram account has approximately 120,000 followers. There, he posts videos that focus primarily on Muslim traditions, verses from the Koran, and instructions for Muslim believers. Mirzekhanov also provides paid lessons to subscribers in which he gives lectures on topics such as “how to defend your children from the evil eye and djins” or “how to spot a wizard.”
The conflict in the Neolit café that resulted in the young man’s arrest took place on February 14 on southeast Moscow’s First Kuryanovskaya Street. The fight pit men from the Russian Republic of Chechnya against émigrés from Azerbaijan. Yashar Aliev, the restaurant’s owner, told The Moscow Comsomol that his employees saw 40 – 50 armed Chechen men attack the café. No more than five diners were in the restaurant at the time. Aliev said he suspected the conflict may have stemmed from a personal offense committed by an Azerbaijani against a Chechen.
A channel called Baza on the Russian-based messaging portal Telegram indicated that more than 60 people may have participated in the conflict. REN TV reported an even higher figure — from 70 to 100. The wire service Interfax wrote that two people were injured in the fight, while both Baza and another Telegram channel, Mash, put that number at seven. The television channel 112 claimed that 10 people were injured. Mash wrote that the attackers in the fight wore masks and shot at Russian National Guard members who entered the café before escaping from the scene.
Moscow police released an official statement saying that only about 20 people participated in the fight and that some of them deployed firearms, leaving one person injured. Police arrested 18 suspects, and prosecutors brought charges of collective hooliganism against them. Government officials from Chechnya and Azerbaijan called the massive conflict a provocation organized by unspecified “third parties.” They claimed the those actors likely aimed to “break down” relations between Chechnya and Azerbaijan.
25-year-old Alibek Mirzekhanov, a suspected participant in the fight, was arrested on February 16. His brother, Mansur Mansurov, told TV Rain that around 20 people were involved in the operation. “They broke into the house as though the most dangerous criminal in the world were hiding there. They put him on the ground, cuffed him, and used really rough physical force,” Mansurov said. Mirzekhanov’s relatives said he did not take part in the fight. Police officers did not publicly explain their reasons for believing a blogger from Dagestan would participate in a conflict between émigrés from Chechnya and Azerbaijan. Shamil Yandarbayev, Mirzekhanov’s attorney, said his client has “an alibi made of reinforced concrete.” “They intimidated him while they searched him, and then he gave testimony against himself,” the attorney said.
On February 20, Yandarbayev announced that his client had disappeared to an unknown location and had lost contact with the outside world. That same day, Moscow’s Kuzminsky Court had been scheduled to announce a preventive punishment for Mirzekhanov in connection with the fight at the café. The hearing was canceled due to the absence of both the defendant and the prosecutor. Mirzekhanov’s attorney said the prosecutor later told him Mirzekhanov had been let go under obligation to appear in court.
On February 21, it became clear that Mirzekhanov had in fact been driven away to be interrogated by the FSB. “Our client supposedly recruited someone and tried to get them to leave for Syria,” the attorney Yandarbayev said. Investigators then asked judges to order Mirzekhanov’s detention. That same day, Interfax reported that Moscow’s Meshchansky Court had approved a two-month detention for the Dagestani blogger.
Translation by Hilah Kohen