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North Caucasus: Daghestan Parents Confront Authorities Over Disappearances

By Salome Asatiani, Aminat Kardanova, and Magomedgadzhi Gasanov Victims' families suspect Russian security forces in the disappearances (ITAR-TASS) When Zhabir Kamaludinov and Shamil Magomedov didn't come home in late January, their families were forced to consider the unthinkable -- that the two young men had joined the growing ranks of Daghestan's disappeared.

The only clue they had, courtesy of a phone call from a taxi driver describing how one of the men had been pulled from his cab, pointed to that conclusion. Since then, scant information has emerged over the fate of the two, who worked at a mobile-phone shop in the republican capital, Makhachkala.

Once a phenomenon primarily associated with the neighboring republic of Chechnya, young men have been disappearing from the streets of other restive North Caucasus republics as authorities have sought to combat Islamic extremism. Now, local residents and human-rights activists are waking up to the seriousness of the problem in Daghestan as well.

Anxious to determine the whereabouts of their sons, who disappeared within two days of each other, Kamaludinov's and Magomedov's fathers this week had a rare opportunity to tell their stories to someone in a position to do something about it.

During a face-to-face meeting on February 5 with Seferbeg Gamidov, the deputy head of the republic's Security Council, they and relatives of others who have gone missing explained the circumstances under which their family members appeared to have been abducted.

"In the morning, at half past nine, he went out to buy milk," Magomedov's father, Magomed Omarov, told the official. "We started calling him in after half an hour, but no one answered the phone. Started looking, but could not find him. We know nothing about his whereabouts."

Kamaludinov's father, Ahkmad, recounted how his son had been detained twice before but "came back both times, saying that they had done nothing to him."

Total Mystery

There was nothing unusual about the day of his son's latest disappearance, the elder Kamaludinov said. Zhabir had opened his shop and was selling phones.

But then, he said, "we received a phone call from a taxi driver, saying that [Zhabir] had been taken. They surrounded the taxi, and took him. My son probably managed to tell the driver the phone number, and he called my brother. If not for this taxi driver, we would not have heard anything."

At first, the family anxiously awaited Zhabir's return, "but this did not happen," the anguished father recalled. The family started looking for Zhabir, but failed to uncover any more clues.

"Did he evaporate?" Akhmad Kamaludinov asked. "A person can be murdered or tried for his actions. But when a person just disappears like this, it's a different thing. No one knows where he is."

During their meeting with Security Council deputy head Gamidov, the two fathers were told that the authorities were unaware of their sons' whereabouts, and received assurances that their cases would be investigated.

But there are some who believe that the authorities themselves are behind the disappearances, as part of their stated effort to combat an armed insurgency that has been active in Daghestan since the 1990s.

NGO Presses The Issue

In August, the prominent human-rights group Memorial issued a report on abductions and disappearances in Daghestan in which it concluded that the authorities routinely carried out "antiterrorist operations" that violated Russian and international laws.

The republican security services, Memorial claimed, indiscriminately fired on private homes, illegally abducted people, used torture, and committed summary executions.

Relatives and family members of the disappeared often speak of anonymous "groups dressed in uniforms" who snatch young men from the street on the presumption that they might be Islamic fighters.

Gulnara Rustamova, who represents the nongovernmental organization Daghestan Mothers for Human Rights, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in December that very few residents doubt that official structures are behind the disappearances.

"For the last three years, in the Republic of Daghestan -- which is part of the Russian Federation -- more than 75 young men have been kidnapped, or disappeared without a trace," she said. "Answers, given to appeals that were filed by their relatives to law-enforcement organs, were that the given individuals had not been detained. But relatives and family members of the kidnapped unanimously lay the blame on the law-enforcement organs."

Statistics provided by Daghestani authorities in August indicated that 209 people had been kidnapped in the republic in the previous three years. Of that number, the official record said, 176 had been released, 14 killed, five had left to join illegal armed groups, and 21 were unaccounted for.

Memorial cited a clear religious dimension to the events in Daghestan, saying that in the wake of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev's incursions into Daghestan in August and September of 1999, the passage of a new law to combat Islamic radicals "freed the hands of the police."

"Now anyone who in the subjective judgment of police officers could qualify as a member of the 'new trend' could become the victim of police brutality," Memorial reported.

Official Snub

In August, a handful of members of Daghestan Mothers for Human Rights went on hunger strike, demanding the release of their sons -- or at least information about their fates. The protesters also demanded a meeting with the republic's president, Mukhu Aliyev.

The meeting did not materialize. But the protests, which lasted for two weeks, yielded some results. The authorities admitted to the existence of the problem, published lists of those who had disappeared, and promised to create a special group to investigate the cases.

But according to the Daghestan Mothers' Rustamova, the promises have gone largely unmet, and the investigative group exists only "on paper."

In the meantime, the disappearances are likely to continue, leading Rustamova to say in December that relatives who have lost their sons have even become reluctant to contact police, fearing that persecution will extend to other members of their families.

"We, the mothers, no longer know what to do, whom to ask for help," she said. "Since the mothers started looking for their children, it is the parents themselves who have become targets of persecution. They are being threatened for not ceasing their efforts to look for their children."

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

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