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Russia: Nalchik Raid Leaves A Painful Legacy

Troops on the streets of Nalchik following the raid (ITAR-TASS) Armed clashes in Nalchik in October 2005 left nearly 140 people dead. A year later, the legacy for Kabardino-Balkaria is one of torture, killings, and religious oppression, observers say.

PRAGUE, October 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On October 13, 2005, armed assailants launched an assault on Nalchik, the capital of the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The raid, staged by militants with purported links to Chechnya's separatist leadership, targeted as many as 20 of the city's main army, police, and security structures. By the end, close to 140 people were officially dead, including 35 security officers and more than 90 militants.

It remains unclear who masterminded the raid. The Chechen militant Shamil Basayev, who was killed in July 2006, at the time claimed responsibility for the attack as a new stage in the "holy jihad" against Moscow. A separate organization called the Caucasus Front said it had organized the attacks, with a third, Yarmuk, claiming a role as well.

"They killed Anna Politkovskaya, but it's impossible to kill everyone who cares about human rights in Russia."

What was clear was that the raid could not be called a success. Despite being labeled by the authorities as "terrorists," many of the attackers were later determined to be young, inexperienced, and poorly trained. Most were dressed in civilian clothes and, by some accounts, could barely handle their weapons.

A year later, many relatives are still demanding in vain that authorities return for proper burial the bodies of 92 men allegedly killed during the attacks. Others report that young men in their families have simply vanished without a trace -- despite having no proven connection to the raid.

Ali Pshigotyzhev fears his 29-year-old son Zaur may be one of the many apparent victims of the wave of arrests, interrogations, and torture that rights groups say have followed in the wake of the October 2005 assault.

Critics say authorities have used the raid as a pretext for a crackdown against hundreds of observant Muslims whose religious practice falls outside the limits of the republic's official Islam.

In the case of the Pshigotyzhevs, the description fits both father and son. Ali, a former state radio announcer, says he was fired after 30 years for his devout religious belief.

His son, he says, regularly went to mosque and first came under the attention of the police because of his religious beliefs. But he is adamant that Zaur, a taxi driver and former law student, had nothing to do with the October 2005 raid:

"It's a fact that he didn't take part in the raid Because his passengers later confirmed this and neighbors said that they saw him at home, on our balcony. He could account for every minute of those days," he says. "All the same, [the police] beat him and tortured him. They took him on October 15, but no one told us anything. We only found out where he was three days later."

Zaur Pshigotyzev was eventually released, but it was only a matter of weeks before he once again disappeared. His family has had no news of him since January.

The Role Of Official Islam

Many in the predominantly Muslim republic say official Islamic structures are complicit in the crackdown. Observant Muslims have accused the republic's state-backed Spiritual Board of Muslims of closing down mosques and appointing poorly trained imams largely restricted to performing weddings and funerals.

The pedestrian quality of state-approved Islam has isolated many devout believers, whom authorities accuse of religious extremism.

Khazratali Dkhasezhev, deputy chairman of the state-backed Spiritual Board of Muslims (DUM), admits his group has been faulted for playing a role in the October 2005 raid.

"When we or other organizations comment on the issue, we say that we are all to blame. We all failed on that point. Now we're saying that we need to come together and help each other so that none of this repeats itself. That's the kind of discussion we're having right now," he says.

Dkhasezhev denies allegations that officials have taken steps to close the republic's mosques, saying there have only been a handful of cases where a mosque has closed because its lease has expired.

But Larisa Dorogova, an independent lawyer who has spent many years defending the rights of Kabardino-Balkaria's young Muslims, dispute's Dkhasezhev's claim.

"He says there are 150 functioning mosques. That's not true. Take, for example, the village of Dkhelukokoazhe-Aul. People from that village were among those killed [in the raid.] Women from that village said there's only one mosque in Dzelukokoazhe, and that it doesn't work. Even in places where there are mosques, they're open only for Friday prayers, and that's it. The rest of the week they're closed. No one can do the five daily prayers. In Nalchik five mosques were closed, and they haven't reopened any of them."

Some Human Rights Victories

Rasul Kudayev, before and after his detention (courtesy photo)

There have been some small successes as residents of the republic seek justice for relatives killed or abused after the raid. A number of families have taken cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to petition for the return of their loved ones' bodies for proper burial.

Lawyers have also marked some progress in their defense of people arrested in the wake of the attack who they say have been tortured in police custody.

An example is the case of Rasul Kudayev, who after his detention was photographed with a severely swollen jaw and other signs of beating. After being dismissed by a city court in Nalchik, Kudayev appealed his case with the republic's supreme court, which returned it to prosecutors for additional investigation.

Kudayev's London-based lawyer, Aleksandra Zernova, calls this a victory of sorts. "We hope that the truth will be revealed and people will understand that it really did happen and that instead of a proper investigation they were subjected to unbelievable torture and beating and some people even died as a result of that."

Authorities, Zernova says, seem determined to cover up the truth about the Nalchik raid at any cost. But she is optimistic that the facts will someday be revealed. "They killed Anna Politkovskaya," she says, "but it's impossible to kill everyone who cares about human rights in Russia."

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)

Nalchik In Pictures

Nalchik In Pictures

A slideshow look at the October 13-14 violence in Nalchik, capital of the Russian North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.

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