In a surprising new twist in what has become a strange and complex story, a Chechen man convicted of fighting with militants in Syria has been released from prison after Chechnya's Supreme Court reduced his sentence from two years to eight months.
Said Mazhayev was sentenced to two years in a penal colony by the Zavodsky District Court in the Chechen capital, Grozny on November 10. However, even though the 22-year-old Grozny native readily admitted to having been in Syria from November 2013 to January 2014, Mazhayev and his family complained that his two-year prison term had been far too harsh and that he had been treated unfairly by the Chechen authorities. Mazhayev, who made a television appearance after his arrest in which he warned young Chechens about "what was really happening in Syria" had appealed against his conviction.
The Supreme Court of Chechnya reexamined Mazhayev's case on February 10, and reduced his sentence to eight months, the time that he had already served in prison. However, Mazhyaev was not released until February 20.
A relative of Mazhayev told the Caucasian Knot news site that the 22-year-old had also received a one-year suspended sentence.
"At the review, the court took into account the fact that [Mazhayev] had voluntarily turned himself in, as well as other circumstances of his case that were not brought up before the Zavodsky [District] Court in Grozny," the relative said. One of the mitigating circumstances could be that Mazhayev has two children who are dependent on him.
The facts surrounding Mazhayev's case, at least as they have been reported, are rather hazy. His relatives argued that he should be acquitted on the grounds that he turned himself in to the authorities on his return to Chechnya, but also said that there is no concrete evidence to prove that Mazhyaev actually fought with a militant group in Syria, even though law enforcement authorities said he had been shot in the leg in clashes and sent to Turkey for treatment. Mazhaeyev also argued that he had returned to Chechnya after becoming disillusioned with "jihad" in Syria, where he had gone to "defend Muslims" against the Assad government.
It is also not clear which group Mazhayev fought with. Some reports said that Mazhyaev fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is very unlikely to be the case, as there are no known cases of people from the North Caucasus fighting with any of the local Syrian groups operating under the umbrella of the FSA.
According to the relative of Mazhayev who talked to the Caucasian Knot, Mazhayev intends to return to the college where he had studied before going to Syria.
If Mazhayev's version that he was motivated to go to Syria to "defend Muslims" but then became disillusioned by the reality of the fighting is true -- and the indications are that the Supreme Court believed him -- then it is possible to draw conclusions about how and why some young Chechen nationals are being induced to take up arms in the Syrian civil war.
The head of a Chechen NGO, who spoke to the Caucasian Knot on condition of anonymity, said that young people were being "drugged by internet propaganda" that motivated them to fight in Syria.
Similar views have been expressed by Chechen nationals who have returned from Syria, at least according to reports in the Russian media. Interviewees said that they had been conned by fake videos claiming to show that the Syrian government was targeting Sunni Muslim women and children.
While the Chechen returnees' claims should be handled with caution, given that they appeared in the pro-Kremlin press and had a clear political spin (the interviewees also expressed anti-U.S. sentiments), there is ample evidence on Russian-language social media to back up the testimonies that propaganda showing the deliberate targeting of Sunni civilians by the Assad government is being used to drum up support for militant groups in Syria.
To Prosecute Or Not To Prosecute?
Some community leaders in Chechnya have criticized the government's move to prosecute returnees like Mazhayev, on the grounds that doing so, and imposing heavy prison sentences, will only serve to deter other Chechens from coming home and rehabilitating themselves.
"At best, this will result in a drastic reduction in the number of returnees," the Chechen NGO leader said.
"Many young people...go to Syria to participate in 'jihad' and then when they get there, they realize the error of their ways, but they won't make a return trip because the courts are waiting for them at home," the NGO leader added.
A similar approach to prosecuting returnees who have fought with the Islamic State group or other factions in Syria or Iraq has been adopted elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan, for example, announced this month that it plans to prosecute as mercenaries those who return from fighting in Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk