High on the list of counterproductive tactics resorted to by Russian police and security personnel in their struggle to contain Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus is the abduction and/or arbitrary killing of law-abiding young men known to be practicing Muslims, but who do not necessarily have any connection with the resistance.
Five years ago, the victims generally vanished without trace, or were later released after having been subjected to interrogation and torture. But over the past couple of years, the modus operandi has changed: the victims are increasingly likely to be tortured and then shot as a preliminary to being branded as "armed militants" as part of a cynical propaganda campaign to highlight the alleged success of the police and security forces in combating "terrorism" across the North Caucasus. In Ingushetia, such execution-style killings are frequently carried out in broad daylight, in the presence of witnesses. Police then place hand grenades or other weapons by the bodies, which are photographed to provide "evidence" of the men's imputed involvement with the armed resistance.
In the past, such killings have occurred -- or at least been reported -- most frequently in Ingushetia, where they now occur on average at least once a month. But in recent months there has been an increase in the number of reported cases in both Chechnya and Daghestan. Whether the authorities in Chechnya and Daghestan have concluded that approach is more effective, or whether the three republics are engaged in a ghastly variant on the Soviet-era "socialist competition" between the various union republics to harvest the most grain or cotton or produce the most coal or steel, is not clear.
Just days before she was herself abducted and killed on July 15, Natalia Estemirova, who worked in Grozny for the human rights watchdog Memorial, expressed alarm that since the lifting in mid-April of the counterterror restrictions that had been in force in Chechnya for the previous 10 years, the number of abductions had risen dramatically and numbered "dozens."
According to the human rights organization Mashr, between January-August 2009 there were six abductions in Ingushetia, 25 in Daghestan and 37 in Chechnya. The comparable figures for the same eight-month period last year were six, eight, and 29 respectively.
Over the past month, there have been three separate protest demonstrations in Daghestan against such abductions. The first was on August 19 in Derbent, where four men known to be law-abiding practicing Muslims were abducted over the previous week. One of the four was identified days later as one of a group of militants killed in a counter-terror operation. His body bore marks of beating and torture, as well as 22 bullet wounds.
The second demonstration, in Makhachkala on August 25, numbered up to 200 people, including relatives of five young men who were abducted by unidentified men two days earlier. Two of them who managed to escape said they were beaten and pressured, first to kill their three companions, and then to blow up a nearby mosque. The bodies of their three companions were recovered on August 27 from a burned out car belonging to the father of one of the victims.
The third protest was in Derbent on September 8 to protest the abduction earlier that day of Sirazhudin Shafiyev. Police dispersed the protesters by force. The European Court of Human Rights has asked the Russian government to provide by September 21 information on the findings to date of the investigation into Shafiyev's disappearance.
Daghestani NGOs convened an emergency meeting on August 27 to discuss how to halt the wave of abductions and killings. That discussion lasted over six hours. Participants pointed out that the victims frequently figure on lists of suspected religious fanatics drawn up by the Interior Ministry, lists that they claim are less than 100 percent accurate and reliable. They also decided to address a formal appeal to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to rein in the Daghestani police and security forces.
Four days later, on August 31, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev summoned top police and security personnel and ordered them to find and bring to justice the persons responsible for the abduction of the five young men on August 23. But even though human rights activists have chronicled numerous instances in which such abductions were carried out by men wearing police or other uniforms, participants in that meeting were clearly reluctant to admit that the republican police could be responsible for such abuses, and therefore implicitly ruled out their involvement in the incident.
That disclaimer apparently proved less than convincing, however. Two days later, on September 2, several hundred leaflets were scattered from a passing car outside a mosque in Makhachkala. The leaflets were unsigned, but the anonymous authors claimed responsibility for the August 23 abductions and killings. They branded the five young men as militants and said they were targeted in retaliation for the killings by Islamic militants of Daghestani police and innocent civilians since, the unknown authors claimed, the republic's authorities are powerless to contain the "extremist threat."
The anonymous authors further warned that over the past year, they have compiled a list of up to 250 militants to be killed. In addition, they identified by name eight journalists, four lawyers, and four human rights activists who they said risk the same fate in retaliation for their alleged engagement on behalf of the resistance. The 16 include Sulaiman Uladiyev, the head of Daghestan's State TV and Radio Corporation; Gadjimurat Kamalov, a former member of President Aliyev's press service and now owner of a media holding company that includes the independent Russian-language daily "Chernovik," and two "Chernovik" journalists; and the two leaders of the human rights NGO Daghestan Mothers that seeks to solve abduction cases.
"Kommersant" on September 7 quoted Kamalov as saying that about one thousand leaflets were scattered on September 4, and Kavkaz-uzel on September 7 quoted him as saying that whoever compiled the text had a detailed knowledge of the situation in Daghestan, which suggests that he had read it. Oddly, however, "Chernovik" did not reproduce the leaflet in either its September 11 or its September 18 edition.
If indeed the leaflets were the work of a nascent "third force" intent on launching a wave of revenge killings, the question arises why the authors decided to publicize their intention in advance and risk being traced and arrested (unless, which seems unlikely, they have been assured of the tacit support of the law enforcement and security agencies).
Kamalov has suggested that rationale for the leaflets was to fuel latent tensions between militant adherents of Salafi Islam and the Makhachkala-based Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan. He did not, however, explain whose interests such a conflict would serve.
Uladiyev for his part attributed the appearance of the leaflets to the uncertainty surrounding Aliyev, whose presidential term expires in February 2010. It is unclear whether Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will nominate Aliyev to serve a second term, or who might be named to succeed him. Aliyev is an Avar (the largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups); he succeeded Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin (the second largest group), who had headed the republic since 1987.
Possible candidates to replace Aliyev include billionaire businessman and Russian State Duma Deputy Suleiman Kerimov (a Lezgin); long-serving Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov (a Dargin); and several Avar candidates, including Khasavyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov; Kizlyar District head Saygid Murtuzaliyev; and Dagneft President and Russian State Duma Deputy Gadji Makhachev.
Aliyev again summoned senior police and security officials on September 10, this time to order them to take appropriate measures to protect the 16 people whose names figured on the death list. He made the point that journalists and lawyers tend to have "many enemies," any one of whom might seize the opportunity to square accounts on the assumption that suspicion would automatically fall on the unknown compilers of the death list.
At the same time, Aliyev categorically rejected as "a provocation" an appeal addressed on September 8 by prominent Russian human rights activists Oleg Orlov and Lev Ponomarev to Aliyev, Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, and Federal Security Service (FSB) director Aleksandr Bortnikov. Orlov and Ponomarev construed the mystery leaflets as either an attempt by the siloviki to offload onto the anonymous would-be "avengers" responsibility for ongoing abductions, tortures and extrajudicial killings, or as signaling the emergence in Daghestan of a new, hitherto unknown terrorist group, and they called on the three addressees to do all in their power to protect those persons singled out for retribution.
Aliyev on September 10 conceded unspecified "shortcomings" in the work of the Daghestan Interior Ministry, which is headed by fellow Avar Ali Magomedov, but categorically rejected as "inadmissible" and "a provocation" the two human rights activists' allegations that the police maintain clandestine prisons and resort to torture and extrajudicial killings.
Orlov and Ponomarev, together with Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Rights Group, responded on September 16 to Aliyev's rebuttal with a further statement accusing the Daghestani authorities of rejecting dialogue with civil society. They again called on Aliyev to put an end to human rights violations.
On September 21, the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported that Magomed Shamilov, who heads an independent trade union representing interior ministry and prosecutor's office employees in Daghestan, has written to President Aliyev and to the republic's Interior Ministry and prosecutor's office and FSB. Shamilov reportedly alleged in that letter that the anonymous leaflets were composed by Interior Ministry staffers who engaged in torture and other reprisals with the full approval of Magomedov's predecessor as minister, Adilgirey Magomedtagirov. He said he believes the most recent abuses, including the August 23 abductions, were perpetrated by that faction within the ministry, and that the leaflets were intended to divert investigators' attention.