A court in Grozny handed down a 2 1/2-year suspended sentence to publicist Rizvan Ibragimov on June 20 for extremism on the basis of books he wrote that the Chechen government says contain esoteric and historically unsubstantiated arguments about the origins of the Chechen nation.*
Evidence presented against Ibragimov in the trial appeared weak, according to local media. However, Ibragimov had separately incurred the displeasure of the Chechen leadership by publicly criticizing the republic's Muslim clergy and the cult status accorded to Sufi saint Kunta-hadzhi Kishiyev by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. A relative of Ibragimov's was quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot a year ago as claiming that the investigators acknowledged that the charge of extremism was absurd and admitted they were acting on orders "from above."
Ibragimov is the author of a number of popular works on Chechen history, published in print runs of several thousand, in which he argues, among other things, that the Chechens are God's chosen people and that all successive prophets were Chechens. His problems with the Chechen leadership began in October 2014, when one of his books was criticized on state television as "giving a distorted view" of the origins of Chechens.
Then in late March 2016, Ibragimov and fellow writer Abubakar Didiyev were summoned to a discussion at the National Museum that was billed as devoted to the ethno-genesis of the Chechen people and the condemnation of unspecified "nonacademic" texts whose authors allegedly failed to adopt a "balanced approach" to the issue. The real focus of the discussion, however, according to an unnamed source quoted by Caucasian Knot, was a lecture Ibragimov had given in Tehran a couple of months earlier and for which he was harshly criticized. During that lecture, Ibragimov criticized the cult of Kunta-hadzhi Kishiyev and spoke disparagingly of members of Chechnya's senior clergy, according to Novaya Gazeta.
Shortly after the discussion in Grozny, both Ibragimov and Didiyev were apprehended by Chechen security personnel and held in detention for several days. They were then summoned to Kadyrov's presence and forced to apologize in front of TV cameras to the academic community and the Chechen clergy for publishing "unscientific" works and "distorting historical facts," after which they were released. Didiyev then left Chechnya.
Ibragimov publicly denied on his release that he had been mistreated in any way, but a year later he claimed he had been subjected to torture by electric shock.
In July 2016, on the basis of a formal complaint addressed by "an outraged female reader" to Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov and the evaluation of unnamed "experts" based in Makhachkala, Grozny's Zavod district court ruled that books Ibragimov published between 2010 and 2015 were extremist and ordered that he be sent to Makhachkala to undergo psychiatric tests over a period of 30 days. At the same time, a criminal case was opened against him for "inciting interethnic or religious enmity or hatred."
Ibragimov's trial on that charge opened in mid-April at Grozny's Oktyabr district court. One month later, on May 26, Chechnya's Supreme Court annulled the earlier Zavod district court ruling, which Ibragimov had appealed, that his books were extremist and sent the case back for review.
In the course of Ibragimov's trial, the prosecution was unable to produce a single "expert" able to testify that his writings were extremist; the investigator responsible for the indictment admitted he had not read them; and the purportedly outraged female reader, Zaira Payzulayeva, told the court she could not remember why she complained about them, Caucasian Knot reported on June 10. The presiding judge nonetheless found Ibragimov guilty.
Ibragimov's 2 1/2-year suspended sentence is arguably lenient by Chechen standards, especially for someone who has incurred Kadyrov's anger. Historian Ruslan Kutayev, for example, who defied Kadyrov in 2014 by convening a conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia on orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison on a charge of possession of drugs that human rights organizations are convinced was fabricated.
One possible explanation for the disparity between the two cases is the recent international criticism leveled at Kadyrov over the documented harassment, mistreatment, and possible deaths in unofficial police custody of gay men in Chechnya.
True, Kadyrov and his henchmen have categorically denied any such reprisals; but those denials did not deter several Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from raising the issue with Putin personally. It is possible that Putin may therefore have warned Kadyrov to tread more softly in future, rather than risk further international protests at blatant human rights violations in Chechnya.
*This item has been AMENDED from its original version.