A court in the Chechen town of Urus Martan has sentenced Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus head Ruslan Kutayev to four years in prison on a charge of illegal possession of drugs that human rights activists say was blatantly fabricated. He is barred from engaging in public political activity for a further year after his release. The prosecutor had called for a five-year jail term.
Just days prior to his arrest on February 20, Kutayev had convened a conference in Grozny to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation on orders from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Speaking at that conference, Kutayev had incurred Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's wrath by criticizing his edict two years earlier that henceforth the deportation anniversary should be marked not on the actual date (February 23), but in early May, concurrently with the anniversary of the death in 2004 of Kadyrov's father, Akhmed-hadzhi, in a terrorist bombing.
According to the prosecution, Kutayev, 56, was detained on the street in the town of Gekhi in the Urus Martan district, southwest of Grozny, because he was behaving "oddly." A search of his person reportedly revealed 3 grams of heroin. Kutayev and other witnesses, however, say he was apprehended at the home of friends he was visiting and was not searched before being driven away. And as Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus Vice Chairman Abdulla Khizriyev points out, having just antagonized Kadyrov, Kutayev would hardly have ventured out on the street with a pocket full of drugs inviting arrest.
What is more, the six witnesses for the prosecution who claim to have been present at Kutayev's arrest gave mutually contradictory testimony in court. While all agreed on what the weather was like that day, they were unable to say who authorized Kutayev's arrest or whether they made their way to the spot where he was apprehended on foot or in a police vehicle. They were also unable to describe the packet of heroin purportedly found on Kutayev.
Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin said Kutayev's lawyer spent 2 1/2 hours in court on July 4 enumerating the various discrepancies in the indictment. The Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial designated Kutayev a political prisoner several weeks ago on the grounds that the criminal case against him was clearly fabricated.
After his arrest, Kutayev was taken not to the local Urus Martan police station, but to Grozny, where he was questioned in the presence of Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov and Magomed Daudov, head of Kadyrov's administration. Daudov had telephoned Kutayev after the deportation anniversary conference and demanded he report to his office for questioning, a demand that Kutayev ignored as he considered it shameful to comply immediately.
Testifying on May 7, Kutayev said that after his arrest he was "brutally beaten and kicked" by top officials in the presence of their bodyguards. He did not name the officials in question.
While most human rights activists attribute Kutayev's arrest to his public criticism of Kadyrov and/or his refusal to report immediately to Kadyrov's office for questioning when ordered to do so, Kutayev himself sees the reprisals against him as part of a broader trend -- "a clear tendency to discredit political and public figures who criticize the authorities." He explains that his political engagement as a leading member of the Alliance of Greens and Social Democrats headed by former Russian State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov placed him in that category, given that "the course we have launched of developing social and political institutions, and hereby developing civil society is geared toward seeking to come to power within the framework of the laws and Constitution of the Russian Federation."
Gudkov for his part appears to lend credence to the hypothesis that Kutayev was arrested because he had defied Kadyrov. Testifying on Kutayev's behalf, Gudkov said that "as someone who has drafted laws, I find the way in which they are applied very strange. Laws that you would think are written absolutely clearly, concretely, in order that justice and the law should prevail, are used as an instrument of revenge."
The groundswell of support for Kutayev is not confined to the two organizations for which he worked. In Stavropol Krai, the heads of two Russian NGOs collected signatures to an open letter to Kadyrov asking him to ensure Kutayev gets a fair trial. The two dismiss the drug charge against Kutayev as "clearly absurd." Vladimir Nesterov, who heads a Council of Russians and Other Slavic Peoples, characterized Kutayev as "the sole representative of the peoples of the Caucasus who stood up for Russians in the Caucasus and Russia as a whole."
Kutayev accepted the July 7 verdict with equanimity, according to his lawyer Pyotr Zaykin, who called the sentence "unprecedentedly harsh."
-- Liz Fuller