What’s the story with the investigation into St. Petersburg’s 2017 subway bombing? Defendants say they were abducted and tortured at a ‘secret FSB prison’
More than two years have passed since a terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg subway. The day before the second anniversary, the trial against the alleged perpetrators got underway. There are 11 suspects in the case, all of whom maintain their innocence. Some of the defendants also say they were tortured at a “secret FSB prison.” Meduza special correspondent Pavel Merzlikin explains how the case began, the allegations against federal agents, and how some have defended the government’s interrogation methods.
“Before Russia, I am guilty of nothing… My conscience is clear,” says the only woman defendant in the case, speaking to journalists through glass from inside the courtroom's “fish tank.” There are 10 men sitting behind her. The woman’s name is Shohista Karimova. Before she was arrested as a suspect in St. Petersburg’s subway bombing, she worked at a cafe, preparing vegetables in the kitchen. Karimova asks reporters to tell readers that she is innocent.
The trial started on April 2, 2019 — one day before the second anniversary of the terrorist attack. A dozen lawyers and two Uzbek and Tajik interpreters are seated in front of the defendants, not all of whom speak Russian fluently. Some of the bailiffs in the courtroom turn to a group of journalists and ask who’s on trial. Fourteen victims are also in the room. Speaking to the press, some are already calling for “the most severe punishment,” while others want to review the evidence and see how the trial concludes.
The defendants have almost no family in the courtroom: only two have their parents here with them. Yarkinai Mirzaalimova, the mother of one of the suspects, says many relatives are unable to reach St. Petersburg. “Some families can’t even afford a lawyer,” she explains.
As soon as journalists are allowed into the courtroom, the defendants start telling them that they maintain their innocence. The loudest of them is Shohista Karimova, who says the charges against her are fabricated. Federal agents say they found a grenade, detonators, and microchips when they searched her home. Throughout the investigation, Karimova has said these materials were planted by the authorities, claiming that they also forced her to “rub pieces of explosives through her hair and under her armpits,” so her biological traces would appear in the case evidence. “During the search, they planted a grenade. That’s why I’m here,” Karimova says. The other defendants say she’s right.
As the hearing begins, prosecutor Nadezhda Tikhonova reads the indictment monotonously. Visibly irritated, presiding judge Andrey Morozov refuses to give the defense attorneys any extra time to get acquainted with the case materials. Marat Sagitov, who’s been on the case since the very beginning as the defense attorney for four of the suspects, later tells Meduza that they needed more time because many of the defendants changed their lawyers just before the trial: “Some are court-appointed lawyers. Moscow lawyers worked the hearings in Moscow to extend their arrests, but the trial itself is happening here in St. Petersburg, and [now] the defendants have St. Petersburg defense attorneys.” Most of the lawyers didn’t have time to develop a defense strategy with their clients, but the judge says they can manage this right there in the courtroom, during recesses.
“Frighten the population, sow panic”
On the day of the subway attack, on April 3, 2017, Vladimir Putin was in St. Petersburg for a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. A few hours after the explosion, President Putin laid flowers at the makeshift memorial outside the Tekhnologichesky Institut Subway Station, demanding that the crime be solved as soon as possible.
The investigation took more than a year, but the public learned almost immediately that officials believed the supposed suicide bomber, Akbarzhon Dzhililov, had accomplices who planned to carry out further attacks. Three days after the subway explosion, the authorities arrested 16 suspects in Moscow, and then the number of potential terrorists rose to 20. All of them came from Central Asia, and a few of these people had Russian citizenship. The suspects mostly had “unofficial” employment, mainly working as taxi drivers, construction workers, and cooks.
Everyone arrested was jailed in pretrial detention, and investigators later named 11 accomplices in the terrorist attack, plus another nine alleged recruiters for the terrorist groups ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.
Officials never found the attack’s “main organizer.” Investigators believe this person is Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, a native of Kyrgyzstan. Mukhtarov allegedly formed the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad terrorist group in Syria, which seeks to create a global Sharia state. The group recruited members from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Prosecutors say the subway bombing suspects likely joined this group between 2013 and 2017 — some in Russia and others while traveling in Turkey.
Officials say the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg was retaliation for Moscow’s military actions in Syria. The alleged suicide bomber, Dzhililov, was trained there, prosecutors say, before he was supposedly sent to St. Petersburg and asked to conceal his radical views. Russian officials say the terrorists hoped the explosion in St. Petersburg would “frighten the population, sow panic among citizens, and create the illusion that the authorities are unable to ensure the lives and health of the population.”
From a suspicious apartment to “a secret FSB prison”
The defendants Akram and Abror Azimov were the first to say they were tortured at a “secret prison.” Investigators say these brothers are some of the subway bombing’s main organizers. Abror Azimov says he was tortured for two weeks in a basement, before he was officially arrested on April 17, 2017. His tormentors allegedly demanded that he confess to orchestrating the attack. The other suspects in the case have similarly testified about being tortured in a basement. Sources told the website Republic that this facility is operated by the FSB, mostly to interrogate people from Central Asia. The secret prison’s exact location remains unknown, but it’s allegedly somewhere near Moscow.
Akram Azimov’s defense attorney says the arrest was “staged.” Azimov says he was hospitalized in Kyrgyzstan in early April with acute sinus problems. On April 15, a few hours after he underwent surgery, local law enforcement came to his hospital bed and took him in for questioning. Four days later, he was arrested in Moscow, where the authorities say they found a grenade in his possession, just like with Shokhista. Azimov says he was tortured at a “secret prison” between April 15 and 19. Yana Teplitskaya, a member of St. Petersburg’s Public Monitoring Commission, visited the Azimov brothers in pretrial detention on March 30 and 31, 2019, and urged them not to retract their testimony about being tortured at a “secret FSB prison.”
After a hearing on April 2, Teplitskaya said another suspect in the case, Muhamadyusup Ermatov, also claims he was tortured, possibly at the very same “prison.” Muhamadyusup’s father, Bahodyr Ermatov, told Meduza that his son went to work on April 5, 2017, leaving his apartment on Tovarshishchesky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, where he lived with his brother, Ibragimzhon, and five other roommates. Then he disappeared. The tires on Muhamadyusup’s car, which was parked near the house, were slashed.
Ibragimzhon Ermatov and his roommate, Mahammadyusuf Mirzaalimov, searched for the missing man all day, and turned to the police, when they couldn’t find him. Officers came to the apartment on Tovarshishchesky Prospekt, photographed the scene, and left. A few hours later, however, they stormed the apartment, forcing everyone inside onto the floor, face down, before they were all taken into custody. The authorities later brought one of the residents back to the apartment and said they’d found explosives in the home, according to the website Fontanka. The defendants say this evidence was planted.
Muhamadyusup’s whereabouts remained unknown until May 11, 2017, when the FSB officially announced his arrest in Moscow. All this time, Bahodyr Ermatov was searching for his son. He told Meduza that he had turned to the police repeatedly. During one visit, the police allegedly told him that he was searching for his son in vain, alluding to his capture by the FSB.
Muhamadyusup says he was abducted and taken to an unfamiliar building, where he spent more than a month with a bag over his head. He says he was tortured and interrogated five or six times, and told to confess that he knew the suspected bomber, Akbarzhon Dzhililov, and state that there was a bomb in the apartment on Tovarshishchesky Prospekt. Muhamadyusup believes he was in the custody of active FSB agents, but the authorities never recorded any forensic evidence that he’d been tortured.
Muhamadyusup’s brother, Ibragimjon Ermatov, told members of the Public Monitoring Commission that he was beaten en route from his arrest to the Investigative Committee station, presumably by FSB agents. Again, however, there were no marks on his body to prove the allegations.
The Tovarishchesky Prospekt residents now comprise the majority of the defendants in the subway bombing case. Both Ermatov brothers are on trial. Their father, Bahodyr Ermatov, says he’s sure of their innocence and guesses that his sons were charged because Ibragimzhon worked with Dzhililov at a sushi restaurant in 2015, though Ibragimzhon says they never spoke, even when on shift together.
“My son hadn’t seen or spoken to Dzhililov for several years, but now he’s on trial. That’s not grounds for calling anyone a terrorist. I lived in that apartment on Tovarishchesky Prospekt myself back in February. If I hadn’t left, I’d be a suspect, too,” Bahodyr Ermatov says.
Mirzaalimova Yarkinai, Mahammadyusuf’s mother, says the same thing happened to her son. “[He] just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — in that apartment. We’re law-abiding citizens of Russia. How could we do something bad if we rely on Russia?”
Yarkinai says her son is a “modnik,” meaning that he wore short-shorts (not generally accepted in Central Asia) and sometimes missed prayer. She says the other residents arrested in the apartment were only there by chance. Her son apparently planned to spend just a few days at the apartment, before finding better housing.
According to Marat Sagitov, who is defending four of the Tovarishchesky Prospekt apartment tenants, there’s no direct evidence in the case materials against his clients. “A link might have led to this apartment, but then they just arrested everyone living there,” Sagitov says. Investigators believe militants were using the home to plot a terrorist attack.
Jail time, recruitment, and fines
Yarkinai Mirzaalimova emphasizes that no one has tortured her son. She says he’s been treated with respect and fed well in pretrial detention. The other suspects in the case, however, say they’ve been abused ever since they were arrested.
In addition to Dzhililov’s 11 alleged accomplices, the Russian authorities arrested another nine suspected terrorist recruiters, just a few days after the subway bombing, assuming that they were linked somehow to the apparent suicide attack. Prosecutors ultimately abandoned this theory, however.
Eight of the nine suspected recruiters were later convicted of working with terrorist groups, and four of these men received seven-year prison sentences.
When investigators couldn’t prove that the other four suspects brought to trial were involved in terrorist recruiting, they charged them instead with “failure to report a crime,” arguing that the suspects either participated in or were aware of WhatsApp groups, where members (including their friends) “called for terrorist attacks.”
The four defendants pleaded guilty to these lesser charges. After spending more than a year in jail from the moment they were arrested, they were fined different amounts as high as 70,000 rubles ($1,090). A judge later took their pretrial detention into consideration and reduced the fines to between 15,000 and 20,000 rubles (about $275). The court even canceled the fine imposed on one of the convicts, a taxi driver and father of five named Suhrat Satymbaev.
One of the men initially accused of recruiting terrorists and later fined for failing to report WhatsApp groups told Meduza (on the condition of anonymity) that his arresting officers tortured him, trying to force him to confess that he worked with terrorists. He says they also beat the other suspected recruiters. The man stresses that he’s never been interested in radical Islam or participated in extremist group chats.
Also on the condition of anonymity, a Meduza source close to St. Petersburg law enforcement says the authorities rushed after the subway bombing to arrest anyone potentially linked to the suspected suicide bomber or radical Islam. Officials knew they could get away with this approach because they knew the people they were arresting could always be charged with failing to report a crime, instead.
Sergey Kovalkov, a senior counsel at the company Versus.Legal, says prosecutors can bring this charge against anyone who has reliable information not only about a terrorist plot, but also terrorist recruitment or incitements to terrorism. Lawmakers have not yet established, however, a list of applicable “information sources,” which has allowed the courts to interpret this as including private conversations and correspondence on social networks and instant messengers.
For example, according to Kovalkov’s interpretation of the law, if someone belongs to a group chat where another member incites or propagates terrorism, that person is obligated to report the matter to the FSB, even if the suspect in the case is an anonymous Internet user. Meanwhile, people who aren’t members of these group chats, but somehow learn about their existence, are only required to file a report if they can also identify the suspect. The one exception here is that people cannot be held responsible for failing to report this activity if the perpetrators are family members.
In the two and a half years since this law was adopted, about 30 people have been convicted of violations. The maximum punishment handed out was a year in prison, and courts have mainly limited penalties to fines ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 rubles ($155 to $775). As Kovalkov notes, most cases repeat the same scenario: the authorities arrest someone who either advocated terrorism or plotted or carried out a terrorist attack, and afterwards the courts punish the suspect’s friends who supposedly knew in advance about the terrorist plot, whose identity officials can extract from their original suspect.
“The main goal after the attack was to prevent more explosions. There weren’t any more, which means officials did their job,” says Meduza’s source in St. Petersburg’s law enforcement, noting that investigators believe terrorist group members were planning a series of attacks.
A letter to Putin
On day two of the hearing, on April 3, 2019 (the second anniversary of the subway bombing), the victims were absent from the courtroom. Instead, they honored their loved ones at memorial services, one at Trinity Cathedral and another outside the Tekhnologichesky Institut Subway Station.
According to Marat Sagitov, the case will take two or three months, and the defendants’ attorneys and families are hoping for acquittals. As a last resort, the mother of one of the defendants, Yarkinai Mirzaalimova, says she might appeal directly to President Putin. “We want to say that we have a clear conscience before the Russian people. Damn these terrorists! Because of these scum and bastards, innocent men are behind bars right now. For us in Kyrgyzstan, the word ‘terrorist’ is like the mark of a murderer,” she says, almost in tears. She says she thought of coming to the courthouse for her son’s trial with a poster reading “We are not terrorists,” but she changed her mind, in the end, deciding not to risk it.
Translation by Eilish Hart