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Five Years On, Militants In Kabardino-Balkaria Take On New Role

Law enforcement officers conduct a raid to seize a group of militants in Nalchik.
Law enforcement officers conduct a raid to seize a group of militants in Nalchik.
Five years after the multiple attacks by inexperienced, young fighters from the Yarmuk jamaat on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), the trial of the 58 men identified as the surviving perpetrators is nowhere near its end.

Meanwhile, the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai (KBK) branch of the North Caucasus insurgency, Yarmuk's successor, has reemerged this year to perpetrate two high-profile attacks and a string of minor killings. More ominously, its fighters are simultaneously acting as a Taliban-style morality police, targeting "dens of iniquity and vice."

An estimated 150-200 young fighters participated in the fighting across Nalchik on October 13-14, 2005. Ninety-two were reported killed and 59 apprehended, of whom one died (whether from natural causes or torture is not clear) before the trial even began.

Lawyers for the 58 men currently on trial have repeatedly said that many of them have alibis and were apprehended at home by police days after the fighting. Similarly, an unknown number of the 92 men identified as having been killed during the fighting are believed to have been rounded up and summarily shot days or even weeks later. Photos of the dead men show that many of them had been massively beaten in the face and head. At least two had bullet wounds to the face or head from apparent execution-style killings.

In line with Russia's laws on terrorism, their bodies were not returned to their families for burial, even though the participation of some of the men in the fighting had never been proven. Instead, they were secretly cremated.

The trial of the 58 began in a specially constructed, high-security courtroom in mid-March 2009, following a protracted and ultimately fruitless attempt to select 37 jurors. Of the 1,200 citizens summoned between October 2007 and November 2008 to serve on the jury, more than 500 never appeared in court, and all but 13 of the remainder asked to be excused. In February 2009, the court finally ruled that the trial would take place without a jury, with three presiding judges. The KBR Supreme Court rejected in December 2008 a proposal to hold a jury trial elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

Lawyers Larisa Dorogova and Magomed Abubakarov have challenged the charges against the accused, many of which they say were based on confessions extracted under torture. Three men confirmed in June 2009 that they were tortured during pretrial investigation. Forty-seven have pled not guilty to any of the charges against them; nine have pled guilty to illegal possession of arms, and one to belonging to a "criminal group." One pled partially guilty. One man, Arsen Boziyev, protested that "you would have had to be Batman to perpetrate such carnage in the space of one hour."

Several of the accused have unsuccessfully demanded that police officers giving evidence against them be required to answer questions about the systematic harassment and detentions of young believers, which impelled the young men to take up arms in retaliation.

One of the accused, Kazbek Budtuyev, was transferred from detention to house arrest in June 2010 after a witness corroborated his testimony that he did not participate in the assault of which he was accused, and for which he had an alibi. The prosecution then appealed the ruling to Russia's Supreme Court.

In March 2006, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed KBR Interior Minister Lieutenant General Khachim Shogenov, who is believed to have encouraged the police crackdown on young Muslims that served as the catalyst for the Nalchik attacks.

In a recent interview, KBR President Arsen Kanokov claimed that "we no longer permit arbitrary violence against devout Muslims," while at the same time admitting that police still resort on occasion to "dirty" methods and, additionally, still maintain lists of practicing Muslim men suspected of links with the Islamic insurgency. He went on to complain that senior Interior Ministry personnel ignore his protests at such methods, sometimes even denouncing him to their superiors in Moscow behind his back. (The interior ministers of federation subjects are appointed by Russia's president, not the republics' prime ministers.)

The two acknowledged leaders of the small band of militants that planned the Nalchik attacks, Anzor Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev, both survived and sought systematically to recruit new fighters. In September 2006, Mukozhev issued a statement arguing that jihad against nonbelievers is the personal duty of every individual Muslim.

But it was Astemirov who assumed the leadership of the jamaat. In 2008, self-styled Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov named Astemirov head of the emirate's Shari'a court, the third most senior position (after Umarov and his deputy Supyan Abdullayev) in the insurgency hierarchy.

Mukozhev was killed in May 2009, and Astemirov in March 2010. The younger fighters who have succeeded them have perpetrated a string of attacks, including a bombing at the Nalchik race course in May that injured but failed to kill Shogenov. Another sabotage attack in July inflicted considerable damage on the Baksan hydroelectric power station.

At the same time, at least one of the jamaat's leaders has warned that his unit intends to target "dens of vice and iniquity." In an eight-minute address on the eve of Ramadan, Zakaria, emir of the Chegem sector appealed to the local population not to let "the enemies of Allah" corrupt the younger generation. He took responsibility on behalf of his men for an attack in early July on an establishment of ill repute called "Heaven," an operation conducted, Zakaria claimed, in order to avoid casualties. But, he went on to warn the owners of such establishments that "in future we will not only destroy those establishments but come after you," and, furthermore, he cautioned those who would frequent such places that they could be blown up at any time.

The KBK jamaat has since claimed responsibility for burning down a liquour store in Nalchik in August after its owner ignored their demand to close it. Months earlier, KBR deputy prosecutor Artur Makhov had claimed that "many" of the republic's businessmen pay "tribute" to the insurgents.

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.


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