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‘They wanted to humiliate me’ How the Russian authorities tried to charge a handless activist with strangling a police officer

Source: Meduza

Reporting by Irina Novik for Bereg. English-language adaptation by Ekaterina Rahr-Bohr.

Aslan Iritov is a fervent patriot of his native Volny Aul, a village in Russia’s North Caucasian Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. The 65-year-old has dedicated much of his life to fighting what he sees as corrupt land distribution practices by local officials in which plots meant for villagers are sold for hefty sums or given to people with connections to the authorities. In 2021, Iritov was charged with “strangling a police officer with his fingers” — despite having lost both of his hands in the early 1990s. After he finished serving two years of probation in September 2023, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia owed Iritov 26,000 euros ($28,127) in compensation. The independent journalists’ cooperative Bereg spoke to the activist about his story. Meduza shares an abridged English-language version of their report.

‘I shouldn’t have survived’

In the 1980s, Aslan Iritov worked at a canned food plant attached to the Nalchiksky collective farm in Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. In the 1992–1993 war between Georgia and Abkhazia, he volunteered as a commander in the Abkhazian army, earning the unrecognized republic’s “Order of Leon” for “special bravery and courage.” A year later, upon returning to his home village, Aslan led a protest against the local authorities in the regional capital of Nalchik, who had bankrupted the city’s state farm and left the residents of Volny Aul without land. It was then that Iritov lost both of his hands and forearms, he recounts:

They planted an explosive device in my car. If I knew who did it, I would have told the investigator long ago. I’m a thorn in the side of many people here. I shouldn’t have survived, but somehow I did.

Iritov, who is legally recognized as fully disabled in Russia, suddenly found himself unable to work at the factory. Initially, his fellow villagers supported him by raising money for the prosthetics he needed, but the bank where they kept their donations soon went bust. Nonetheless, Iritov learned to adapt, and despite his injury, he doesn’t consider himself to be a “disabled or defective person”:

My wife supports me in everything. Thanks to her, I live a life that could be called normal. Both daughters are married and live in Nalchik, but they also help when they come to visit us. I’ve never heard the word ’no’ from them. Even my little granddaughter — she’s only six years old — doesn’t refuse me anything. She loves me, and I also love her very much. I tell her, “My dear, put socks on for grandpa.” And she puts them on.

‘We were just defending our rights’

Iritov recalls that in the early 1980s, there were about 2,000 people working at the Nalchiksky collective farm, but by the end of the decade, fewer than 100 employees remained.

Although Volny Aul had become part of Nalchik in 1972, the village still retained the state farm and some land. In the 1990s, however, the mayor’s office of the Kabardino-Balkarian capital began giving away plots of land around the city’s outskirts for individual construction. Officials also decided to demolish a dormitory in the city center and resettle its residents, allocating land for construction to Volny Aul.

Property records confirm that former state farm employees still retained some land in the village, which authorities promised to redistribute on a first come, first served basis. Since 1993, the mayor’s office has accepted applications from 1,350 families (Volny Aul’s total population is about 50,000) and confirmed their entitlement to land. Iritov, like many others, has been waiting for his plot for three decades now. Villagers believe that officials sold land at inflated prices, pocketing the difference.

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In 2010, the Nalchik city authorities promised to grant Volny Aul independence from the city budget. In reality, however, the opposite happened: the state farm was permanently bankrupted, annexed to the city, and turned into a new district. “No order, no signature — just transferred, that’s all,” explains Iritov. The residents were informed that the lists governing who would receive plots no longer had legal force.

Four years later, the new head of the republic, Yuri Kokov, promised to finally resolve Volny Aul’s land issue. In 2014, Kokov initiated the transfer of 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land from the bankrupt state farm to municipal ownership. Subsequently, 140 hectares (345 acres) were divided into plots and allocated to Nalchik beneficiaries, including 37 families from Volny Aul. According to Iritov, only a fraction of the numerous applicants received land because land plots were predominantly allocated to members of the Kabardino-Balkaria governor’s administration, their relatives, and their acquaintances, while the rest was sold off. “Our lands are close to the city, so it’s more profitable for local authorities to sell them rather than give them away,” he tells Bereg.

In response, dissatisfied villagers banded together under Iritov’s leadership: he began summoning his neighbors to protests and drafting appeals to the authorities, all in an attempt to establish a dialogue with officials. In the late 1990s, the villagers suggested that Iritov run for election to the local parliament. Iritov agreed, but the election results, he alleges, were rigged against him. Demoralized, he decided that would be the end of his career in politics.

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The car bombing wasn’t the only attack on Iritov: in 2004, unknown assailants shot at him on the street. “Apparently, I was too active,” he says. “They probably wanted to scare me. But I still don’t know the real reason, because nobody was found.”

In 2016, Iritov established the “Volny Aul” public organization, uniting around 1,100 villagers. According to Iritov, from the very beginning, FSB employees were present at all meetings of the organization:

They had their own interests. They came in the guise of city administration employees, but I know them by sight. What, do they have no other work? We weren’t planning an overthrow of the government, we were just defending our rights to the land.

The organization’s members worked towards a resolution for months, engaging with both Nalchik’s mayor, Arsen Alkaev, and the republic’s head, Yuri Kokov, but all to no avail. Their open letter to Kokov received a “formal, meaningless response.” Meanwhile, Iritov received other signals from officials that all his work would lead to nothing: “At first, they tried to intimidate me, then they offered me a larger plot, and then money — seven million [rubles]. I wasn’t scared, so I refused their offers. Then they sent the police.”

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‘They’re just bootlickers’

Under Iritov’s leadership, activists planned a rally at the Nalchik city administration building on October 31, 2017, despite the authorities refusing to grant a permit. On the same day, security officers came to Iritov’s house.

Twenty people showed up in the morning. Allegedly, they wanted to deliver an official warning about the illegality of the rally. But they didn’t have anything with them — they just came to intimidate me. And so I mocked them: ‘That piece of paper is so heavy that twenty people couldn’t lift it and bring it!”

In response, the officers assaulted Aslan and his relatives, leaving his brother Beslan with two broken ribs, and his wife with a broken finger. Aslan’s daughter was slammed face-first into the pavement but escaped serious injury. The same day, a criminal case was launched against the brothers for violence against police officers, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. 

Two weeks after the visit, officers from the regional Anti-Extremism Center brought Aslan and Beslan to a pre-trial detention center.

I told them: “I have no hands, as you can see, but I still need to go to the toilet. Put me in the same cell with my brother.” No, they said: you’ll be alone. So I spent the night there alone, but I still needed to go to the toilet. I had to break the zipper on my pants.

They thought I would crack in the isolation cell. They wanted to humiliate me, but they humiliated themselves. I, at least, remained a man as I was. And they, excuse me, are bootlickers. There was nothing manly about them. Nothing humane either.

The next morning, lawyers from the human rights groups Memorial and Committee Against Torture came to the brothers’ house, where they had been placed under house arrest.

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Even though Aslan Iritov has no hands, initial case documents alleged that he “grabbed” the head of the criminal investigation department, Zaur Krymukov, and “pressed his fingers into [Krymukov's] neck.” During Aslan’s first hearing, Judge Lyudmila Surovtseva repeated these allegations verbatim. 

“I thought I had misheard,” he recalls:

But at the end, she repeated the same thing. Then I said, “Your Honor, I have a question for you: with which fingers could I have choked Krymukov?” and raised my hands. She was taken aback and changed “Iritov A. S.” to “Iritov B. S.” — that is, from me to my brother Beslan. And I was then accused of hitting the head of Anti-Extremism Center Deputy Director Hamidbi Gubashiev with my head.

In October 2018, Beslan Iritov was convicted, but the court deemed his six-month sentence already served. As for Aslan Iritov, his trial lasted four years, concluding in September 2021 with a two-year probation sentence. The activist does not consider himself guilty and maintains that he “did not hang his head in shame”: 

The agents themselves were filming [in our house], and there is no discernible evidence of Beslan or I doing anything illegal in the footage. If I had hit a policeman, then why, after a four-year trial, was I only given probation? They knew perfectly well that there wasn’t a shred of evidence. They convicted me solely because I stuck my nose in matters they wanted left untouched. They try to get rid of “inconvenient” people here. There’s neither proper investigation nor justice in our republic. I’m just astounded by the lawlessness.

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‘Evil should be punished’

Aslan sought help from the Committee Against Torture to hold the assaulting police officers accountable. The local branch of the Investigative Committee, however, declined to launch an investigation three times, and all of the officers ultimately evaded prosecution.

 “When I met with the [regional] internal affairs minister, Vasily Pavlov, he asked who did all this to me,” Iritov says. “I answered: ‘[Anti-Extremism Center Deputy Director] Gubashiev. He sits in the office opposite yours, he slandered me.’ To this day, he still works in that office.”

In November 2022, Memorial filed a complaint on Iritov’s case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which quickly ruled that each member of Iritov’s family was owed compensation in the amount of 26,000 euros ($28,127). However, since Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe in March 2022, it hasn’t complied with any ECHR rulings. Aslan Iritov says he wasn’t surprised by the court’s decision, but that he doesn’t expect to ever receive the money it awarded hiim. 

“Honestly, I expected it. I knew we were in the right, but I didn’t know what the amount would be. Truth be told, however, this didn’t bring me any satisfaction, because evil should be punished, like it would be in a normal state that respects the rule of law,” he says.

Iritov likens his conflict with the Nalchik authorities to a “fight against windmills,” calling himself “Don Quixote.” Still, he tells Bereg, he has no regrets: “The whole truth that had been concealed came out.” He continues:

There has been no shortage of offense and disappointment over the past 30 years. […] I have come to recognize quite a few rotten and corrupt people. I did so much good, and they didn’t even lift a finger. That’s why there is still some resentment in my soul. 

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Reporting by Irina Novik for Bereg.

English-language adaptation by Ekaterina Rahr-Bohr.

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