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After Fleeing IS Recruiters, A Precarious Limbo In Moscow

  • Tom Balmforth

Abdusami, a 24-year-old Tajik migrant worker in Moscow, wants to prove he was tricked into traveling to Syria.

Abdusami, a 24-year-old Tajik migrant worker in Moscow, wants to prove he was tricked into traveling to Syria.

MOSCOW -- He says he traveled to Turkey on the promise of a construction job. But before dawn one day, Abdusami found himself trudging across a pitch-dark field -- to be met on the other side by gun-toting men who told him he had just crossed the border into Syria.

By Abdusami's account, the crossing was just one leg in a journey that has taken him from his native Tajikistan to Russia, Turkey, and Syria -- and then back to Moscow after he fled the clutches of militants or middlemen supplying fighters to the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Now he lives in a state of limbo, lying low and desperate to avoid two unpleasant fates he fears he could face: arrest and extradition to Tajikistan, where he is wanted on suspicion of joining a terrorist group, or a less formal punishment at the hands of the people he says lured him to Syria.

"This man has done nothing wrong," says Abdusami's wife, who sits beside him as he speaks to a small group of journalists at a Central Asian restaurant in Moscow, her eyes tearing up at times. "Why should he go to jail for something he didn't do?"

Human rights advocates say there is a potential way out. Bakhrom Khamroyev, an activist with Moscow-based rights group Memorial and head of a migrant-support organization called Help, is encouraging Abdusami to tell his story to Russian prosecutors in a bid to prove his innocence.

That, Khamroyev said, would set a powerful legal precedent for others in similar predicaments. "I've looked into the case of this young man. He really was deceived -- he was told he was going to work and ended up in a war zone," Khamroyev says of Abdusami, who did not want his last name published. "This is a very important moment -- society needs to talk about this, so that people hear about it."

Fear Of Extradition

But it would also be a gigantic risk. Russia and Tajikistan have formal extradition agreements, and there are also cases of Tajiks being arrested in Russia and then handed over to Tajikistan without process to face extremism charges.

Since he fled the Syria-Turkey border, Abdusami says he has been receiving threatening messages from the men who he says lured him to Syria -- and also from investigators in Tajikistan who he says arrested and beat up his brother in custody in Tajikistan as a way to get to him.

Russian human rights activists such as Khamroyev say that many Central Asians in the IS ranks have been tricked, coerced, or trafficked but do not try to escape, reasoning that they face prosecution at home for their association with the militant group.

Memorial activist Bakhrom Khamroyev (right) sits with Abdusami.

Memorial activist Bakhrom Khamroyev (right) sits with Abdusami.

Others do escape but then go into hiding, fearing they will be unable to prove their innocence to the authorities in countries like Tajikistan, whose governments have frequently voiced concern that they face violence and subversion from citizens returning home after fighting alongside IS.

Tajik authorities say hundreds of people from the poor, predominantly Muslim country have traveled to the Middle East to join IS militants since the extremist group seized large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq in mid-2014.

Earlier this year, the commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces dropped out of sight -- and then reappeared in a video, saying he had joined the IS group to protest the secular government's restrictions on Islamic dress and public prayer.

Friend: 'Good Work' In Turkey

Abdusami says he never intended to join IS, or any other militant group.

With a gray knitted hat on his head, Abdusami is soft-spoken as he recounts his story at a table in a Moscow restaurant frequented by migrants, his hand in his wife's lap.

It started with a trip to Russia to work in construction -- a major source of income for Tajiks because jobs are scarce in their own country, one of the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics. He has been working in Moscow since 2008 and recently obtained a temporary residence permit.

In April 2014, he says, he finished working with a team of Tajiks renovating a house in Odintsovo, a Moscow suburb. He was looking for a new job when former co-workers told him they had found "good work" in Turkey and suggested he travel there.

Abdusami consulted his wife and decided to take them up on the offer. The former co-workers included his closest friend -- a man whom he prefers not to name, referring to him instead as Rakhim. He and Rakhim grew up together "like brothers," he says, as Rakhim's mother was dead or gone and he was raised by Abdusami's mother.

Their shared childhood meant that Abdusami trusted Rakhim, and never dreamed his friend would deceive him. But in retrospect, he says, Rakhim had changed significantly in the year leading up to April 2014.

"Nothing satisfied him," he says. "He wasn't satisfied by anything around him."

'I Suspected Nothing'

At the airport in Istanbul, Abdusami says, he was met by a Tajik who took him to an apartment where he was told to wait along with three or four others. A second Tajik man was in charge and provided food. Some of the men sat in silence, he says, while he and others talked about work.

Looking back, Abdusami speculates that the silent ones knew full well where they were heading.

Three days later, he says, seven of the men were given bus tickets, boarded a public bus, and traveled for 18 hours. They got off the bus and entered a house where he and about 30 others were told to rest. They were of different nationalities, he says: some from Tajikistan, some from Uzbekistan, others from Russia's North Caucasus.

At 3 a.m., a man came in and told them they would walk the next leg of the journey. "He said the road was muddy and we had to go over a field on foot. We went over the field at three o'clock in the morning," Abdusami recalls. "Then he told us that we had to wait a while -- that people would come and meet us."

"I didn't suspect anything," Abdusami says. "But then they came for us -- and then I suspected. They were normal guys, local residents, with automatic weapons. We had crossed the field for about 700 to 800 meters. They told us that the field we had crossed is the border between Turkey and Syria."

He says they were taken to a house where there were a few hundred people waiting, and was told they would stay there for three or four days before being taken further.

"There were people from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, from the Caucasus, Turks, Americans, Indonesians, local Arabs," Abdusami said. There, too, he says, were the men he had worked with in Russia -- including his old friend Rakhim.

"At that moment, I realized that this was not work, and that they had deceived me," he says. "I acted immediately after I realized that I had arrived in Syria and I hadn't come to work, but that they had tricked me into coming there to fight."

Caught In A Trap

Abdusami says that he phoned Rakhim's father in Tajikistan in hopes of persuading Rakhim to leave; he was concerned that if he returned without Rakhim, he would be accused of tricking Rakhim into traveling to Syria, and not the other way around.

"I thought that if I returned on my own then his parents would pin this on me," he says. "That is in fact what happened. I gave him the phone, but he didn't want to speak to his parents."

Abdusami says he tried to use the mobile phone to shoot a video that he could use to prove his innocence, but that a man from the North Caucasus region of Daghestan -- who appeared to be in charge -- took the phone and placed him "under arrest" in the cellar of the house.

He says he remained in this cellar for 10 days, until they brought in a tall prisoner who took his place. He was allowed out of the cellar but warned not to go beyond the fence outside the house, he says -- but he awoke in the dead of night and fled, leaving his workman's bag behind but taking his passport.

Abdusami says it was easy to escape, claiming that the barrier for some others was psychological. "There were people there who said: 'Look, we're in a bad situation. If we return there, then we'll be arrested in Tajikistan in any case because of this. They'll give us 20 years in jail because they won't believe us. They'll arrest us no matter what. We're not rich enough. The only option is to stay here and not return.'"

Abdusami says he went back over the border and begged enough money to get to Istanbul, where his wife later met him, and they went back to Moscow together.

Wanted In Tajikistan

In the meantime, he says, Rakhim's father went to the police in Tajikistan, accusing Abdusami of sending his son to Syria. That accusation only compounds Abdusami's concerns about going to the authorities with his story.

Tajik investigators have called Abdusami several times to summon him for questioning, he says, and he accuses the authorities of resorting to pressure on his family. When his brother returned home from Russia to recuperate from an illness, he was detained by the police for four days and "tortured," Abdusami says.

"They tortured him and said: 'We need to close this case. You take the fall,'" he says.

Abdusami says that his brother was released after his mother somehow mustered $3,000 to pay the police officers for his freedom. He says he believes the authorities let his brother go so that he could coax Abdusami back to Tajikistan, but he has not gone.

In October, he received temporary residence in Russia. But the Federal Migration Service later told him he was "internationally wanted."

It was impossible for RFE/RL to independently verify Abdusami's story.

Can He Clear His Name?

Khamroyev and his colleagues at the widely respected Memorial Center are clearly willing to believe him. They are urging him to do something that may seem counterintuitive in a country whose justice system has a long history of show trials and assumed guilt: go to the authorities unbidden in an attempt to avoid possible prosecution.

Khamroyev says he has been approached by more than 10 citizens of Central Asian states in the last year who were "deceived" into traveling to the Middle East and find themselves in a predicament similar to that of Abdusami.

"More often than not, people in this situation are afraid of appealing to the authorities -- they go into hiding and so on," says Vitaly Ponomaryov, director of Memorial's Central Asia program.

That is more or less the case for Abdusami, who rarely goes outside except to work.

Activists acknowledge that the risks could potentially outweigh the rewards. "If he appeals [to the Russian authorities], it will be an important precedent, but it is hard to say beforehand what the implications will be for him," Ponomaryov says.

Despite the fears, Abdusami's wife says the idea of clearing her husband's name is a temptation that's hard to resist. "We want to legally resolve this so we can get on with our lives," she says.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at