A Chechen man standing trial on charges of fighting with militants in Syria is innocent and has never been to that country, his lawyer has said.
The case of 20-year-old Hassan Edilkhanov was passed to the Supreme Court of Chechnya on December 16, after being investigated in Moscow, according to the Caucasian Knot website.
There are vast differences between the accounts given by investigators and those of Edilkhanov's defense, as presented via news reports.
In other cases of Chechens standing trial for fighting in Syria, such as that of Said Mazhayev, the defense has admitted that the defendants had been in Syria but argued that there was no photographic or video evidence to prove that they fought with militants. Mazhayev also argued that he returned home voluntarily.
In Edilkhanov's case, his defense says that the 20-year-old Chechen was never in Syria but instead had traveled to Thailand. Edilkhanov was arrested in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on March 27 after flying to Russia from Thailand.
According to Russia's "Kommersant" newspaper, which reported on the case only in August, Edilkhanov attracted the attention of the Federal Security Service (FSB) after he landed in Moscow, and was taken aside to "clarify his passport data." A few hours later, Edilkhanov was arrested and taken to the Lefortovo remand center, where he was remanded in custody for two months on suspicion of fighting in an illegal armed formation.
None of the news reports say which armed group Edilkhanov is suspected of fighting with. There are militants of Chechen origin (either Chechen nationals, members of the Chechen diaspora in Europe and Turkey, or ethnic Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia) in a number of militant factions in Syria, including the Islamic State (IS) group.
According to news reports, the investigators in Edilkhanov's case allege that the 20-year-old dropped out of the Russian State University of Oil and Gas in Moscow in November 2013. He went to Turkey and from there travelled to Syria, where he joined an armed militant group.
A representative of the Chechen prosecutor's office told Caucasian Knot that Edilkhanov spent several months fighting in Syria. "According to the intelligence services, Edilkhanov, who was a student at one of the Moscow state universities, left his studies in November last year and traveled via Turkey to Syria where he joined the Islamists and spent several months participating in military actions against government forces. In spring this year he returned to Moscow," the representative said.
Edilkhanov's lawyer, Rosa Magomedova, has maintained that her client did indeed go to Turkey. However, from there he did not go to Syria, but to Thailand, she claims.
Magomedova told "Kommersant" in August that Edilkhanov was not interested in radical Islam but was a completely secular young man whose hobbies included the Russian TV show "Comedy Club" and eastern martial arts.
According to Magomedova, Edilkhanov had gone to Thailand in order to train in ultimate fighting.
After Edilkhanov's arrest, Magomedova told Caucasian Knot on April 1 that he had only spent a few years in Chechnya as a child and had lived mostly in Moscow and Turkey. In November 2012 (later news reports say it was November 2013), Edilkhanov had gone to visit his relatives in Thailand and train in martial arts.
Although Edilkhanov was arrested and remanded in custody in Moscow, his case has been transferred to the Chechen Supreme Court. The Chechen prosecutor's office said that the case had been transferred because Edilkhanov was a Chechen national.
There are several questions relating to Edilkhanov's case that have not been answered in news reports, but which will presumably form part of his trial. If Edilkhanov did travel to Thailand, and if he did spend from November 2013 through March 2014 there, there should be records at least of his entry and departure from that country.
Other trials in the Russian Federation of citizens accused of fighting in Syria have gone into detail about what the defendants allegedly did in Syria, even though the prosecution has been unable to present photographic or video evidence.
If found guilty of the charges against him, Edilkhanov faces a prison sentence of between five and 10 years.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk