Moscow, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The trial in a Russian republic of nine people accused of links to a banned organization has restarted debate on the potential expansion of radical Islam in Russia.
The trial of nine, all of whom were arrested in Bashkortostan in December, began in the republic last week. The defendants are all accused of involvement in terrorist activities, organization of a criminal group, and illegal possession of weapons in connection with their alleged ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks to establish a caliphate in Central Asia, formally rejects violence but was banned in Russia as a terrorist organization in 2003. Russia's Federal Security Service accuses the group of supporting separatist rebels in Chechnya.
"It is not rare that law-enforcement bodies, including members of the Interior Ministry, surround a mosque during the Friday prayer. When people come out they thoroughly check everybody's passports. Unfortunately this tendency is on the rise and such operations take place in many cities."
The trial in Bashkortostan is just one in a string of similar judicial proceedings now taking place in Russia.
In April, a court in Tatarstan sentenced five local residents to conditional terms of imprisonment for allegedly cooperating with Hizb ut-Tahrir and disseminating its literature.
Last November, police detained 16 people throughout Bashkortostan for allegedly distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets -- although no criminal investigation was launched in that case.
Muslim representatives and human rights groups, however, say the authorities' efforts to expose Islamic fundamentalists are increasingly targeting ordinary Muslims.
Nafigula Oshirov, the supreme mufti for the Central Asian part of Russia, says random police checks and arrests are becoming a common occurrence for members of Russia's Muslim community.
"It is not rare that law-enforcement bodies, including members of the Interior Ministry, surround a mosque during the Friday prayer. When people come out they thoroughly check everybody's passports. Unfortunately this tendency is on the rise and such operations take place in many cities," Oshirov said.
The Interior Ministry's press service declined to comment on 3 May.
Human rights groups accuse law-enforcement bodies of beating Muslims and of planting explosives, narcotics, and Hizb ut-Tahrir literature on them before arresting them.
Vitalii Ponomarev works for the Russian human-rights group Memorial. He says Russian authorities often do not even examine Islamic literature that is taken from Muslims before launching criminal proceedings against them for having ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir:
"In the court cases that we have attended, seized Islamic literature whose content has not even undergone an examination figures as material evidence of the crime. The mere possession of this literature, combined with testimony that this person is a Wahhabi or a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, is enough evidence to bring criminal charges," Ponomarev said.
The first measures to fight Islamic extremism in Russia were taken in the late 1990s, when the southern republics of Daghestan and Chechnya banned Wahhabism.
Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam. In Russia it is often a synonym for terrorism.
Oshirov accuses the Russian authorities of labeling Muslims as Wahhabis as a means of cracking down on them.
"These terms are all made up terms that enable law-enforcement agencies to carry out a repressive policy against any Muslim. If today you are branded a Wahhabi or a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, it means that anything can be done to you," Oshirov said.
Human rights groups say the Kremlin is cracking down on Muslims because it believes radical Islamic groups are seeking to take control of Russian regions inhabited by Muslims.
Russia is home to around 20 million Muslims, most of them concentrated in the North Caucasus and the republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan.
Ponomarev, however, sees another reason behind the rising wave of Hizb ut-Tahrir trials in Russia. Muslims are paying the price, he says, for what has been widely criticized as the government's failure to avert the tragedy that occurred when terrorists took hostages at a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan, North Ossetia, last September.
"Russia really has been confronted with the problem of terrorism and the special forces were strongly criticized for their inability to prevent the terror attack [in Beslan]. This is why they had an interest in branding a massive organization as 'terrorist,' so if more violence occurs they can say they were fighting terrorism by arresting members of this organization," Ponomarev said.
More than 330 people, half of them children, were killed during the hostage crisis. Most of the victims died when Russian special-forces troops stormed the school.