Daghestan's Supreme Court has sentenced to life imprisonment three men found guilty of abetting the suicide bomber who blew herself up in August 2012 at the home of respected Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Atsayev (Chirkeisky), killing him, herself, and six other people.
A fourth man accused with them of banditry, illegal dealing in weapons, and abduction for ransom was sentenced to 12 years in a strict-regime labor camp.
The four men are Shikhmirza Labazanov, 33, Magomedali Amirkhanov, 39, and Magomed Gadzhiyev, 25, and Akhmed Israpilov. All pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them, except for Labazanov, who admitted having driven the suicide bomber part of the way to the village of Chirkey where Atsayev lived, but insists he was unaware she planned to kill Atsayev.
Lawyers for all four men said the sentences were both too harsh and illegal, insofar as they failed to take into account major discrepancies between the testimony of the four accused.
Within weeks of Atsayev's killing, investigators had reportedly identified the suicide bomber as Alla Saprykina, a Russian woman who had converted to Islam, taken the name Aminat, and married three successive Daghestani militants, all of whom were killed.
Her handler was named as Aleksei Pashintsev, 24, a Russian from Belgorod who had joined the North Caucasus insurgency and, under the nom de guerre Abdul-Malik, assumed command of a group of insurgents based in the Daghestani town of Buinaksk. Pashintsev was said to have accompanied Saprykina on the day of the killing from the village of Komsomolskoye in Kizilyurt district, where she had been living for the previous six months, to the sheikh's home in the village of Chirkey.
Saprykina had reportedly tried three months earlier, in May 2012, to kill Atsayev the same way, but on that occasion she was not admitted to his presence.
In December 2012, however, the National Antiterrorism Committee announced the detention of Labazanov, Amirkhanov and Gadzhiyev, identified as members of the Gimri subgroup of the North Caucasus insurgency, on suspicion of having aided and abetted Saprykina. The fourth man, Akhmed Israpilov, was arrested one month later.
The website Caucasian Knot, however, quoted unnamed Daghestani security officials as saying Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev were not on the list of wanted insurgents, although they were under surveillance as likely volunteers to provide assistance and support to them.
Magomed Shamilov, who heads an independent labor union for Interior Ministry personnel, was quoted as expressing doubt that the three played any role in Atsayev's killing.
In light of the cult status that Atsayev had enjoyed in Daghestan, and the fact that his "murids" (disciples) included numerous members of the police and security organs, Moscow investigators assumed responsibility for the investigation. They duly combined the case against Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev with that of two brothers from Daghestan, Shamil and Makhulava Sidikbekov, accused of a botched attempt in 2012 to kidnap Moscow-based businessman Yury Surlevich. (Surlevich managed to escape; he is said to have identified Labazanov as one of the men who tried to abduct him.)
The investigation was completed by late March 2014, but the trial began only in September of that year and was adjourned repeatedly, on one occasion because Amirkhanov's defense lawyer, Murad Magomedov, was assaulted outside the courtroom and beaten so badly his jaw was broken in two places. In November 2013, two houses belonging to members of Amirkhanov's family had been destroyed in an apparent arson attack.
According to the official indictment, Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev provided cover, accommodation, and transport for Saprykina and helped her assemble the explosive device she used. They were said to have acted at the behest of Magomed Suleymanov, "qadi" (supreme Islamic legal authority) of the Daghestan insurgency wing, who, according to the daily Kommersant, had pronounced a death sentence on Atsayev with the hope of triggering an armed conflict between Daghestan's Sufi and Salafi congregations.
Labazanov, a former police officer, was said shortly after his detention to have confessed to driving Saprykina from Gumbetov Raion to the village of Komsomolskoye in Kizilyurt Raion, from where she took a taxi to Atsayev's home. Among the material evidence produced by the prosecution was Saprykina's mobile phone, which she was said to have used to maintain contact with Labazanov, and which reportedly yielded an exchange of text messages with him. Eight days prior to the sheikh's killing, Daghestan's Supreme Court had approved a request to monitor calls to and from Labazanov's mobile phones. Labazanov nonetheless repeatedly denied being aware that she planned to kill the sheikh by blowing herself up in his immediate vicinity.
During the pretrial investigation, Labazanov is said to have spoken in detail about how he got to know Suleymanov, his involvement in two abductions for ransom, and discussions among insurgents about the possibility of killing a deputy interior minister.
Testifying in court last month, however, Labazanov distanced himself from that incriminating testimony which he said he had given in response to threats directed at himself and members of his family.
Amirkhanov, who describes himself as a businessman, told the court that he "was never a member of any [insurgent] band" and that he had nothing to do with Atsayev's death. He said Labazanov asked him to accompany him to Makhachkala on the day in question, that Saprykina left them in Komsomolskoye, and that shortly afterward Labazanov turned back, saying he had forgotten the car papers and didn't want to risk being flagged down by traffic police.
Amirkhanov admitted to being acquainted with Suleymanov, a former classmate, but said he had had no contact with him since they graduated from school. Amirkhanov also said he was subjected to torture by electric shock immediately after his detention in December 2012.
Gadzhiyev, who faced only one charge, of being an accessory to murder (the prosecution claimed Saprykina stayed at his home in the run-up to the killing), similarly denied any role in it. He admitted having accompanied Labazanov and Saprykina to Komsomolskoye, driving ahead of them in a second car to alert them in the event of a police patrol ahead, but said he and Labazanov were going to inspect a car he wanted to buy. Gadzhiyev said the prosecution failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the terrorism charge against him; his lawyer argued that he simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In addition to his imputed involvement in Atsayev's killing, Labazanov, together with Israpilov, was accused of the abduction for ransom of hydrologist Vladimir Redkin in August 2010 and the attempt to snatch Surlevich. The Daghestani wing of the North Caucasus insurgency reportedly funds its activities largely by engaging in kidnappings for ransom and extorting protection money from businessmen and government ministers.
According to the indictment, Labazanov had got to know Israpilov on the hajj in 2010, and on their return to Makhachkala, Labazanov solicited Israpilov's assistance in breaking into Redkin's apartment to kidnap him, for which Labazanov later paid him 600,000 rubles ($11,233 at the current exchange rate). Israpilov, however, said he had never met his co-defendants until the trial began, and he had nothing to do with Redkin's abduction.
-- Liz Fuller