Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lawyer Deplores Daghestani Investigators' Failure To Solve Journalist's Murder

Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, a deputy editor at the Novoye Delo weekly newspaper, was killed in his car by unknown attackers outside his home near the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala, on July 9, 2013.

Liz Fuller

For international human rights watchdogs, and even for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the murder of Daghestani journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev has become a symbol of the shortcomings of the Prosecutor-General's Office and its regional directorates across Russia.

And two years after the unsolved slaying and with the investigation suspended, a lawyer for the victim's family is questioning Putin's elevation of a key official in light of the lack of progress.

Akhmednabiyev was shot dead outside his home in the Makhachkala suburb of Semender on July 9, 2013. He was 53. Like those of 15 of the 16 other Daghestani journalists to have lost their lives over the past 20 years, his murder remains unsolved, despite a campaign earlier this year by 28 human rights organizations to transfer the investigation from the republican to the federal Investigative Committee. 

In an open letter last week to federal Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, lawyer Abdurashid Sheykhov, representing Akhmednabiyev's family, accused the Daghestan directorate of the federal Investigative Committee of failing to continue its search for his killers, despite President Putin's insistence a year ago that all such murders should be solved.

Sheykhov further claimed that Daghestani investigators' failure to identify and apprehend Akhmednabiyev's murderer is part of a broader pattern of systematic underreporting of crimes and deliberate disregard of victims' complaints. He said that trend had become more apparent since the appointment of Eduard Kaburneyev, a Russian, to head the Investigative Committee's Daghestan subsidiary.

Trained as a medical doctor, Akhmednabiyev switched to journalism in the early 1990s, writing for the weekly newspapers Chernovik and Novoye Delo, and for the news portal Caucasus Knot. He was widely respected by fellow journalists. In September 2009, his name figured on a death list circulated in Makhachkala, the anonymous compilers of which threatened retribution for the spate that summer of murders of police officers by members of the North Caucasus insurgency. In 2012, he co-founded the Independent Union of Journalists together with Milrad Fatullayev, chief editor of the online Nastoyaschee Vremya.

Sheykhov noted that Akhmednabiyev had narrowly escaped death in January 2013 when unknown perpetrators opened fire on him from precisely the same spot where he was finally killed. At that juncture, the prosecutor's office opened an investigation into the willful destruction of property and the illegal possession of firearms, but not into attempted murder.

Sheykhov accused the Investigative Committee of foot-dragging even when a possible new line of inquiry presented itself. In March 2015, according to Sheykhov, information came to light that three years earlier an unnamed Daghestani district head asked his driver-cum-bodyguard to kill Akhmednabiyev. Investigators questioned that witness only after he himself was shot and seriously injured shortly afterward, but no criminal charges were brought against the person said to have sought Akhmednabiyev's death.

Sheykhov asked why, in light of Daghestani investigators' failure to make any headway in solving Akhmednabiyev's murder, the federal Investigative Committee does not transfer responsibility for the case to its directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District. He had first asked Bastrykin to do so two years ago. 

Instead, in September 2014 the local branch of the Investigative Committee in Makhachkala tasked with the investigation of Akhmednabiyev's death shelved it on the grounds that all possible leads had been exhausted. The human rights watchdog Article 19 promptly raised the case, together with those of several other slain journalists, at a session of the UN's Council on Human Rights and the investigation was reopened.

As noted above, in his open letter to Bastrykin, Sheykhov vented his frustration at the unwillingness of the Daghestan subsidiary of the Investigative Committee to respond to and act on complaints about the professionalism of its personnel. Whether or to what extent that reluctance dovetails with a deliberate policy of underreporting crime is impossible to judge at a distance. Similarly unclear is the role of Kaburneyev, whom Putin named in October 2013 to head the Investigative Committee's Daghestan directorate. 

Kaburneyev was seconded to Daghestan from Moscow. At the time of his appointment, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov commended his professionalism.

At the same time, Abdulatipov also complained that in some cases, the investigation of high-profile crimes committed in Daghestan "drags on for years." In that context, he explicitly mentioned Akhmednabiyev's murder.

Even though Putin in October 2014 personally prioritized solving the murders of Daghestani journalists, he recently extended Kaburneyev's tenure for a further five years despite the failure to identify and apprehend Akhmednabiyev's killer. A colonel at the time of his transfer to Daghestan in 2013, Kaburneyev now holds the rank of major general.


Crimea-Style Referendum On South Ossetia's Horizon

Leonid Tibilov (left), the leader of the self-styled Republic of South Ossetia meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year.

Liz Fuller

Meeting on October 19 with visiting Russian presidential official Vladislav Surkov, de facto South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov announced he plans to initiate a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. He did not specify a timeframe for doing so, or whether South Ossetia would become a separate subject of the Russian Federation or be subsumed into the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on which it borders.

The self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia split in the early 1990s from Georgia, of which most members of the international community still regard it as an integral part.

Russia formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in late August 2008 following the intervention of Russian forces after then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempted to restore the central government's control over the breakaway region.

Since his election as de facto president in April 2012, Tibilov has consistently maintained the need to preserve South Ossetia's nominally independent status. By contrast, his defeated rival in that ballot, Anatoly Bibilov, called in January 2014 for a referendum on South Ossetia's incorporation into Russia.

In March 2015, Tibilov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bilateral framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration that provided for enhanced security cooperation between the two polities and increased Russian financial assistance for the small and impoverished region, which is heavily dependent on Russian subsidies. 

The initial draft of the treaty included as a long-term goal the holding of a referendum on the region's incorporation into Russia, in line with the demand by Bibilov, who became parliament chairman following the victory of his One Ossetia party in the June 2014 parliamentary election. 

Following a stormy political debate over several months, however, the clause providing for such a referendum was removed from the final version of the treaty. 

Veneer Of Legitamacy

Tibilov's announcement thus represents a reversal of both Russian and South Ossetian policy. In that respect, it is reasonable to assume the initiative was dictated to him by Moscow and may have been intended as a response to last week's decision by Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), to ask ICC judges to authorize an investigation into suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russian, South Ossetian, and Georgian military personnel during the August 2008 war.  

Two other factors may also have influenced the timing of Tibilov's announcement. First, the attention of the international community is currently focused almost exclusively on the conflict in Syria. The international response to Tibilov's gambit -- especially if the Kremlin declines to endorse it -- is thus likely to be muted, compared with the outrage triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea 18 months ago, which was given a veneer of legitimacy by means of a similar referendum.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on October 20 that the subject of Tibilov’s discussion with Surkov was South Ossetia's "integration" with Russia, not the referendum mentioned by Tibilov’s press service. 

Second, the prospect of losing all hope of regaining control of South Ossetia will inevitably exacerbate the tensions in Georgia between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, popular support for which has sunk to an all-time low of 14 percent, and Saakashvili's United National Movement. Depending on the timing of the proposed referendum, the issue could dominate the campaign for the Georgian parliamentary election due in October 2016.

By contrast, it is unclear what impact the initiative will have on the domestic political situation in South Ossetia. Bibilov's One Ossetia garnered just 43 percent of the vote in last year's election, presumably largely as a result of his vigorous espousal of "unification" with Russia. What proportion of the electorate would vote in favor of unification is unclear. To date, only the Nykhas party, which constitutes the smallest of the four factions in the South Ossetian parliament, has come out in support of Tibilov's initiative. 

Russian pundit Modest Kolerov, who is said to be close to the Kremlin, posted an analysis of Tibilov's proposal online just hours after it was made, in which he predicted that more than 85 percent of South Ossetia's voters would vote in favor of unification. At the same time, Kolerov made the point that the 15 percent who are wedded to the idea of independence and sovereignty constitute the political elite, and include many men who over the past 25 years have taken up arms to defend that hard-won status. 

There has been no formal comment on Tibilov's announcement from Georgia's other breakaway region, the Republic of Abkhazia, which signed a Treaty on Union Relations and Strategic Partnership with Russia in November 2014 that envisaged looser and more flexible relations

That treaty specifically obliges Russia to support Abkhazia's ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure formal recognition as an independent state from more members of the international community.

Georgia’s Former Ruling Party Launches New Bid For Preterm Elections

One of ENM's leaders, Giga Bokeria (above), has characterized former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili as “the man who controls the entire country,” and who “for the past three years has been engaged solely in crushing those forces in society that pose a threat to him.”

Liz Fuller

Three years after its resounding defeat in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, Georgia’s former ruling United National Movement (ENM) has launched a new campaign to push for the resignation of the present government and preterm parliamentary elections. Its chances of securing the support of, and acting in cooperation with, other opposition parties to achieve that end are minimal, however.

Meanwhile, splits have reportedly emerged within the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition over proposed amendments to the constitution that would change the way the next parliament will be elected. Those proposals constitute yet another bone of contention between GD and the opposition.

The ENM announced its plans a week ago, during an October 5 demonstration outside the business center in Tbilisi of GD’s billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013. Even though Ivanishvili has maintained a low profile for the past two years, the ENM, and some Georgian analysts, remain convinced that he continues to dictate policy behind the scenes, and that Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili is little more than Ivanishvili’s puppet. Former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania wrote recently that “those who agree with [Ivanishvili’s] vision are promoted, while those who disagree are fired.”

Accordingly, the ENM lays the blame for the setbacks Georgia has sustained since GD’s advent to power squarely on Ivanishvili. Addressing the October 5 demonstration, Giga Bokeria, one of ENM’s leaders, characterized Ivanishvili as “the man who controls the entire country,” and who “for the past three years has been engaged solely in crushing those forces in society that pose a threat to him.”

Bokeria said the only “legitimate way” out of what he termed the present “catastrophic situation” is preterm elections, which should take place “as soon as possible.”

ENM parliamentarian Sergo Ratiani for his part said the ENM will begin consultations with all political forces with the aim of convening mass protest demonstrations to pressure the government to resign.

To date, however, not a single political party has sided with the ENM. Three parties -- Kartuli Dasi, Democratic Movement-United Georgia (headed by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze), and the New Rightists -- have rejected its invitation, while Alasania’s Free Democrats, which quit GD in November 2014, insist that the next parliamentary elections should take place “within the constitutional time frame,” meaning in October 2016.

That reluctance is paralleled by negative perceptions of the ENM as reflected in a poll conducted in March-April by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. Just 13 percent of respondents identified the ENM as the party closest to them; with 21 percent, GD did not fare much better. Attendance at the October 5 protest in Tbilisi was reportedly limited to a few hundred ENM supporters.

Some observers have suggested that the ENM’s primary objective in announcing “consultations” with other political forces was simply to try to sow panic within the GD ranks and to improve its own image with the Georgian electorate and the international community.

At the same time, as noted above, GD is under pressure in light of the ongoing acrimonious disagreement over how and when the existing electoral system should be changed. At present, in line with constitutional amendments passed in December 2011, 77 parliamentarians are elected in majoritarian single-mandate constituencies. The remaining 73 lawmakers are elected under the proportional (party-list) system from parties that receive at least 5 percent of the vote.

Critics of that model, including the OSCE’s Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, point to the huge discrepancy in the size of single-mandate constituencies -- the largest has over 150,000 voters, the smallest, fewer than 6,000 -- which Georgia’s Constitutional Court ruled in late May violates the principle of equal suffrage.

Discussions on changing the electoral model began one year ago, when a group of NGOS proposed to the authorities the creation of a working group to draft amendments to the exiting electoral law. When no response was forthcoming, extraparliamentary parties set about drafting amendments that provided for the abolition of the single-mandate constituencies.

In late May, a coalition of eight NGOs and 14 political parties (not including the ENM), with the backing of Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, signed a joint petition arguing that under the present system, the number of parliament mandates a party receives is not directly proportionally to the number of votes cast for that party, and many votes are thus wasted. They therefore asked parliament to switch to a split system in which 75 parliamentarians would be elected under the proportional system and 75 under a regional-proportional system in which the country would be divided into multimandate constituencies, each of which would elect a specific number of lawmakers under the proportional system. This was one of three alternative models put forward in February-March 2008 by the 10 opposition parties aligned in the National Council, but rejected by the ENM.

It was envisaged that the requisite changes to the constitution would be made in time for the October 2016 parliamentary elections to be held under the new model. GD, however, responded by proposing a two-stage reform that entails preserving the current system with minor changes until after 2016, and only then abolishing single-mandate constituencies in favor of a regional-proportional system. That approach does not, strictly speaking, contravene the Constitutional Court ruling, which as parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili has pointed out, called for changing the rules under which majoritarian constituencies are formed, rather than abolishing them. The changes proposed included altering some constituency boundaries to make the number of voters more uniform and increasing from 30 percent to 50 percent the number of votes required for a first-round victory in a single-mandate constituency.

The ENM, which five years ago fought tooth and nail to preserve the majoritarian system, boycotted a parliament session scheduled for June 10 to protest what it termed GD's "unilateral decision" on the legal framework for the October 2016 ballot.

On September 18, the Georgian parliament set up a 10-member commission tasked with overseeing the statutory one-month public discussion of the blueprint for electoral reform unveiled by GD in June.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties began collecting the 200,000 signatures required for initiating a debate on their demands for the abolition of single-mandate constituencies prior to October 2016.

Both initiatives appear doomed to failure, however. First, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission advises against enacting changes to electoral law less than one year before elections are scheduled to take place. Meeting in December 2014 with a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation, parliament speaker Usupashvili had said a decision on whether to scrap completely or redraw the boundaries of the single-mandate constituencies needed to be taken by February-March 2015, to allow for revising the electoral code well before the parliamentary ballot due in October 2016.

Second, GD, which controls 86 of the 150 parliament seats, is unlikely to be able to muster the three-quarters majority (113 votes) required to pass the constitutional amendments on which the planned reform is contingent, because at least some majoritarian lawmakers fear they would lose their mandates as a result of switching to the new system, and would therefore vote against it.

Giorgi Kakhiani, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Procedural Issues, said in early June that the proposal to scrap the majoritarian constituencies has “more opponents than supporters” within the parliamentary majority.

Usupashvili, whose Republican Party unequivocally favors switching from the majoritarian to the regional-proportional system, tacitly admitted two weeks ago that in light of the lack of unity within GD, there is no way this could be done before the October 2016 parliamentary ballot. He said any attempt to do so would lead to the collapse of the coalition, which is not in Georgia’s best interests. And it would also, Usupashvili pointed out, necessitate preterm elections that would have to be held under the existing system.

GD’s failure to enact the proposed reform prior to the October 2016 parliamentary ballot could compound the animosity between Prime Minister Gharibashvili and President Margvelashvili. The latter’s parliamentary secretary, Giorgi Kverenchkhiladze, remarked in early June that “it is not clear why the introduction of a fair electoral system should be delayed for 5 1/2 years.” He expressed confidence that the proposed switch to a fully proportional system could be made by early spring of 2016, “given the political will.”

Tatar Apprehended On Charges Of Links To North Caucasus Insurgency

The late Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov

Liz Fuller

An attempt to implicate deceased North Caucasus insurgency leader Doku Umarov in acts of subversion allegedly committed at his behest in Tatarstan 10 years ago lacks credibility, given that during the period in question Umarov lacked the authority to issue any such orders.

Albert Galiyev, 43, has nonetheless confessed to setting up an illegal armed group that blew up more than a dozen oil or gas pipelines or power lines in the Volga region in 2004-05 on Umarov's orders, Kommersant reported on October 8, quoting the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

Galiyev is said to have set up the group, named the Rybno-Slobodsky Jamaat, after Galiyev's home district in Tatarstan, in the early 2000s. He then purportedly established contact with the Chechen resistance and traveled to Chechnya to undergo military training there -- which is plausible, if unlikely.

But other aspects of the FSB's summary of Galiyev's activities appear to lack credibility.

Specifically, it is claimed that Galiyev and his men were acting in 2004 and until the arrest of four group members in late 2005 at the behest of Umarov, who was said to have supplied them in 2004 with arms, cash, detonators, and instructions on how to assemble improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In 2004, however, Umarov was simply one of several Chechen field commanders and thus not authorized to co-opt or assist militant Islamists elsewhere in Russia, even if it had been within his capacity to do so. Umarov was named Chechen Republic Ichkeria vice president in the spring of 2005, when Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev succeeded Aslan Maskhadov as president, and himself became president when Sadulayev was killed in mid-June 2006. Former RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky, who met with Umarov in Chechnya in June 2005, noted that at that time Umarov's fighters did not even have proper tents.

In October 2007, Umarov ditched the cause of Chechen independence and proclaimed a North Caucasus Emirate with himself as its head. Even though Umarov personally demonstrated little talent as a military leader, especially compared with Maskhadov and radical field commander Shamil Basayev, he was designated Russia's "terrorist No. 1" as a result of the failed attempt in June 2009 to assassinate Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the suicide bombings in the Moscow metro in March 2010 and at Domodedovo Airport in January 2011, for which the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility. Alleged association or collaboration with Umarov thus automatically raises the profile of any criminal charge of terrorist activity.

That said, there were reportedly contacts in the early 2000s between Islamic militants in Tatarstan and Basayev. In February 2007, 17 members of what was identified as "the Islamic jamaat" went on trial in Tatarstan on charges of planning to perpetrate a series of terrorist attacks during the celebrations in summer 2005 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Kazan.

The "Islamic jamaat" was said to have been established in 2001 on Basayev's orders by Ilgam Gumerov of the city of Naberezhnye Chelny. Its members were rounded up starting in late 2004. No explanation was given why Basayev and Umarov, acting independently, should have established parallel cells in Tatarstan at roughly the same time.

Umarov did seek to establish an insurgency presence in the Volga region, but only in September 2006, when he named Abdurakhman Kamalutdinov (Djundulla) as commander of the recently created Volga Front. Whether that front was intended to replace the groups headed by Gumerov and Galiyev, or whether other groups formed its nucleus, is unclear.

In October 2006, just weeks after Umarov named Kamalutdinov to head the Volga Front, the insurgency website reported, quoting federal Interior Ministry data, that 14 sabotage operations had been registered in Tatarstan since the start of the year, and 214 in the Volga region as a whole.

Those statistics suggest that a sizable and effective militant wing had been active in the region for some time before Umarov formally designated it a North Caucasus insurgency "front."

Kadyrov's Account Of Killing Of IS Fighters In Grozny Less Than Convincing

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claps during celebrations marking the 63rd birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Grozny on October 7.

Liz Fuller

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's account of a special operation in Grozny on October 8 in which three (initial reports said four) militants were killed was, predictably, self-serving, not entirely credible, and left key questions unanswered.

According to Kadyrov, Chechen police and security personnel were aware that three fighters who had undergone training at a military camp in Syria run by the militant group Islamic State (IS) had arrived separately in Grozny with the intention of perpetrating a series of terrorist acts "during the holidays," meaning the celebrations on October 5 to mark Grozny Day and on October 7 to mark the birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kadyrov did not explain why, if they had been in Grozny almost a week, it had not proved possible to apprehend them earlier; why they failed to launch the planned attacks; or why, having failed to do so, they should have remained in the city.

Kadyrov said that the leader of the group, whom he identified as Shamil Chergizov, was killed in an exchange of fire when police flagged down his car to check his documents. The remaining two men were reportedly holed up in a nine-story apartment building in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky district, which was then surrounded by security personnel and stormed when they refused to surrender. The two were identified as Zelimkhan Bashanayev and Magomed Mazayev. How it proved possible to ascertain their identities so fast, given that they were almost certainly not carrying their own identity documents, is not clear.

Since the early months of this year, when it was reported that at least two prominent Chechen members of the Caucasus Emirate had switched their allegiance to IS, Kadyrov has repeatedly affirmed that IS stands no chance of winning popular support in Chechnya and any of its emissaries will be swiftly apprehended.

In February, however, IS sympathizers reportedly displayed the black jihadi banner in Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt and daubed on a fence the slogan (in English) "Khosi-Yurt is support ISIS." 

According to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, rumors of an imminent attack in Grozny by IS had been circulating for some time, possibly spread at Kadyrov's behest.

Tags:Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov

Is The Caucasus Emirate On The Rebound?

A screengrab of a video uploaded to YouTube last week, suggesting that that the Caucasus Emirate has named a new leader.

Liz Fuller

Since the start of this year, numerous Russian analysts have predicted that the growing influence and popularity of the extremist organization Islamic State (IS) among disaffected residents of the North Caucasus would ultimately render the Caucasus Emirate (IK) -- proclaimed eight years ago by then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov -- both impotent and irrelevant. 

Video footage uploaded to YouTube last week suggests, however, that the IK has named a new leader and has reestablished a presence in Chechnya, where its fighters intend to resume their "jihad" against the republic's Moscow-backed leadership. 

The deaths of two successive IK leaders, Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Amir Ali Abu-Muhammad) in April  and Magomed Suleymanov (aka Ali Abu Usman) in August, have helped substantiate the belief that the IK is defunct. So too have as yet unconfirmed reports that Rustam Aselderov, a former leader of the IK wing in Daghestan, has been named the head of the IS presence in the North Caucasus. 

Meanwhile, a spokesman for IS claimed in June that its leader, Amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has accepted the oath of allegiance of militants from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Aslan Byutukayev, whom Umarov named in 2011 to head the IK's Chechen wing, and veteran field commander Makhran Saipov have both transferred their allegiance to IS.

A third respected Chechen commander, Tarkhan Gaziyev, is one of three fighters from the North Caucasus whom the U.S. State Department added late last month to its list of persons and terrorist groups subject to U.S. sanctions. Gaziyev left Chechnya over a year ago, but told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in an interview in the summer of 2014 that he planned to return. He is said to be in Syria, heading a group of fighters known as the Tarkhan's Jamaat, which has links to IS.

Video Oddities

The 2½ minute video clip, which is dated September 2015 and entitled Address by the mudjjaheds of the Vilayat Nokhchiicho (the IK's designation for Chechnya), shows a group of masked, black-robed figures, two of them armed with handguns. The speaker, who identifies himself as Amir Muslim, explains that, with Allah's help, he and his comrades in arms "have returned home" (from where is not clear) and set about acquiring what they need and organizing themselves to continue waging "jihad."

He calls on "brothers" who for whatever reason have likewise left the Vilayat Nokhchiicho to return. He also appeals to all Muslims of the Caucasus to "awake from their slumber" and help the militants "against our common enemy."

Amir Muslim concludes by affirming that his group acknowledges Abu-Khamza Umarov as its leader and will continue to comply with his directives as long "as he observes the laws of the Koran and the Sunna." He also says that it was Abu-Khamza "who helped us return and find the people we need."

Abu-Khamza is the nom de guerre of Akhmed Umarov, Doku Umarov's elder brother and until now the IK's official representative abroad (he lives in Turkey) and supreme Islamic judge. Doku Umarov died of food poisoning in September 2013. 

This is the first time that Akhmed Umarov has been identified as having succeeded Suleymanov as IK leader.

Several things about the video clip seem odd. As noted above, the group shown are masked and wearing black robes, in a departure from standard practice. By contrast, earlier video footage of Doku Umarov, Byutukayev and Makhran and other fighters shows them in battle fatigues, their faces clearly visible. This could, however, be a valid precaution intended to protect the men's families from Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's threat in the wake of the insurgency attack on Grozny in December 2014 to expel militants' families from Chechnya and destroy their homes . 

Second, "Amir Muslim" does not mention IS, either as a potential ally or a rival force.

Third, he does not clarify from which country he and his men have returned to Chechnya. He does, however, explicitly mention that it was Umarov who helped them return "and find the people we need." This suggests that the "returnees" were not familiar with the situation in Chechnya and did not have their own contacts there, whether family or trusted supporters.

That in turn raises the question: are they Chechens from the generation who left as infants during the fighting of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 and have grown up in Europe? Many of those young Chechens are reported to have flocked to Syria to join the forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, but not necessarily IS.

Putin Promises To Call For Probe Of Allegations Makhachkala Mayor's Co-Defendants Were Tortured

Makhachkala ex-Mayor Said Amirov was sentenced to life imprisonment earlier this year on charges of terrorism and contract killings.

Liz Fuller

Among the questions put to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the October 1 session of the presidential Human Rights Council was one from human rights activist Andrei Babushkin concerning the recently concluded trial of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov and seven co-defendants on charges of terrorism and contract killings. 

The eight men, all of whom pleaded innocent, were found guilty, largely on the evidence of one witness, Magomed Abdulgalimov, of the murder in 2011 of investigator Arsen Gadzhibekov and a rocket attack that inflicted minor damage on a shopping and recreation center. Amirov, 61, was sentenced to life imprisonment. His co-defendants, including his nephew Yusup Dzhaparov, received prison terms ranging from 9½ to 22 years. 

Babushkin claimed the Prosecutor-General's Office and the North Caucasus Military District Court systematically deleted from the written records of the pretrial interrogation of Amirov's co-defendants all complaints that evidence was extracted by subjecting the accused to electric shock treatment. As a result, Babushkin explained, "all evidence of Amirov's innocence became evidence of his guilt."

Babushkin asked Putin to instruct the prosecutor-general to bear that circumstance in mind during the review of Amirov's appeal. (All eight men appealed their sentences to Russia's Supreme Court.) Putin undertook to do so, but added cryptically that "the charge, as you know, is a very serious one."

Babushkin's claim that Amirov's co-defendants were subjected to torture is nothing new. Abdulgalimov's lawyer hinted as much in early 2014, and during the trial last year of Amirov and Dzhaparov on a separate charge of terrorism, Abdulgalimov testified that he had been tortured during the pretrial investigation.

In the course of the recently concluded trial, several of Amirov's co-defendants similarly claimed to have been beaten and/or subjected to electric shocks. Repeated attempts by their defense lawyers to persuade the prosecution to probe the multiple claims of torture proved unsuccessful.

Putin's response to Babushkin's request was in line with his mostly positive reactions to the solicitations of other council members. That does not, of course, mean that Putin was necessarily sincere in assuring Babushkin that he will ask the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the torture allegations. Even if such a probe is carried out, and the allegations are found to have been substantiated, to admit as much would corroborate Amirov's repeated assertions that the successive charges brought against him were fabricated and politically motivated.

It is, however, conceivable that the Supreme Court will revise Amirov's sentence downwards. As one blogger commented, even a 10-year prison term would in all likelihood prove to be a life sentence, given Amirov's age and precarious health. He is paralyzed below the waist and wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries sustained in 1993 during one of a dozen attempts on his life, and also suffers from diabetes and hepatitis.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.