The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, with a total population of just 480,000, has brought more men to trial over the past 15 years on charges of plotting coups d’etat than any other Russian Federation subject. In the past five years alone, at least 76 men, in groups ranging in size from four to 29, have stood trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the republic’s leadership with the aim of establishing an Islamic state, and/or of attacking police, illegal possession of weapons, and membership of an illegal armed group.
Most of those accused have received prison terms ranging from two to 20 years; a handful were acquitted, or avoided imprisonment by virtue of having spent months, if not years, in pretrial detention. Sentence was passed on August 8 on the 16 defendants in the most recent such case.
The incidence of such alleged plots and the imputed objective of establishing a state based on shariat are all the more implausible given that Karachayevo-Cherkessia is one of the least Islamicized republics of the North Caucasus, in contrast to Chechnya at the other end of the spectrum. (The Muslims of the northwest Caucasus are Hanafis, whereas in Chechnya canonical Islam of the Shafii legal school co-exists with, but is losing ground to, republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s bastardized version of traditional Sufi Islam.)
Local journalist Murat Gukemukhov has pointed out that while some young men in Karachayevo-Cherkessia have indeed taken up arms to oppose the authorities, the primary motivation for doing so is adverse socioeconomic conditions, corruption, and inequality. “This is not so much Salafism as Che Guevara-ism,” Gukemukhov said.
Information about the earliest “coup” trials, in 2002 and 2007, is fragmentary, and even media reporting of more recent cases is sketchy and sometimes based solely on the prosecution’s indictment. Informed observers acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining a halfway clear picture of what happened but nonetheless question the assumption that the men sought to seize power, a charge to which none of them has been quoted as pleading guilty. As Gukemukhov asked rhetorically, how could such small numbers of men have any realistic hope of doing so?
Other charges too have been unconvincing. For example, some of the murders that 29 men who went on trial in April 2009 were accused of had been previously attributed to a militant group that the authorities claimed to have wiped out in 2006.
The defendants in that trial, as in earlier ones, were said to be members of the local wing of the North Caucasus insurgency. A group of 16 young men who went on trial in August 2013 was similarly said to have belonged to an illegal armed group formed in April 2011 by Islam Uzdenov, who was killed together with two other members of the group in December of that year during a special operation by the FSB.
Two of the 16, Denislam Semyonov and Osman Baychorov, had been apprehended during a special police operation in February 2013 during which Semyonov allegedly tried to shoot a senior police officer. They were sentenced earlier this month to 18 and 17 years’ imprisonment respectively, despite pleading not guilty to the coup charge.
Semyonov pleaded guilty only to illegal possession of weapons and membership in an illegal armed group, but denied attacking police. Baychorov pleaded not guilty to all four charges; he further said his pretrial testimony was extracted under torture. Eight other group members were jailed for up to two years.
While at least some members of the “Uzdenov Group” apparently did take up arms, even if they never fired them, a second group of 13 men who went on trial in April 2012 on similar charges of setting up two illegal armed formations with the aim of seizing power were not even in possession of weapons, according to their defense lawyers. The men were characterized as law-abiding practicing Muslims from rural areas, all with university educations and gainfully employed. Not all of them were acquainted among themselves, and those who did were not in constant contact. They apparently incurred suspicion by spending several days together discussing their shared fear of being targeted for “not praying correctly.”
Svetlana Avdjayeva, representing one of the 13, Artur Ismailov, said the prosecution did not adduce a shred of evidence to substantiate the charge of plotting to overthrow the authorities. What is more, the prosecutor reportedly failed to ask Ismailov a single question about the imputed coup, focusing exclusively on how often he prayed or went to the mosque. Avdjayeva claimed the men were beaten or tortured to induce them to confess. Lawyers for other defendants similarly said the charges against them were fabricated and unsubstantiated. All were nonetheless jailed for between six years and 10 months and 12 years.
The fact remains that despite changes in the republic’s leadership in 2008 and 2011, the KChR prosecutor’s office and courts have resorted for years to the same dubious “coup” charges against successive groups, reportedly underpinned by testimony from the same witnesses. Over the same time period, the KChR Interior Ministry has routinely resorted to the beating of suspects to extract incriminating testimony.
Discussing the jail terms handed down to the “Group of 13,” Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Malashenko drew a parallel with the systematic reprisals meted out by police in the early 2000s to young practicing Muslims in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic that borders on Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The victims of that harassment finally launched multiple retaliatory attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the republican capital, in October 2005.
-- Liz Fuller