Criminal charges against regional politicians in Russia who have fallen foul of the system are not uncommon. The prosecution usually at least attempts to present a convincing indictment, however.
That does not appear to be the case in a sensational trial involving a former but enduringly popular officeholder in the North Caucasus.
Wheelchair-bound former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, whose trial opened last week in the North Caucasus Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don, faces charges of commissioning a contract killing and a terrorist attack.
Those charges, as Amirov himself pointed out in court, are based largely on the testimony of one man that Amirov's 16-strong team of lawyers say was given under torture. The defense lawyers also say the prosecution has not produced any material evidence to substantiate the indictment.
Prior to his spectacular arrest in June 2013, Amirov, now 61, was regarded as one of the most powerful and ruthless politicians in Daghestan, and a potential challenger to incumbent Ramazan Abdulatipov in the event of a direct election for the post of republic head. Amirov was first elected Makhachkala mayor in 1998, and has twice been designated the best mayor in Russia. He placed third in this year's informal poll by the independent daily Chernovik to determine which political figure Daghestanis would like to see as "People's President."
Together with his nephew Yusup Dzhaparov and six other men, Amirov is charged with the contract killing of an investigator in December 2011 and planning a missile attack on a leisure center with ownership ties to a political rival. The prosecution's case is based largely on the testimony of Magomed Abdulgalimov (aka Kolkhoznik), a former assistant to the Khasavyurt city prosecutor.
Abdulgalimov claims that Amirov co-opted him and six other men to carry out a missile attack on the leisure center, located southeast of Makhachkala in the town of Kaspiisk, to assassinate investigator Arsen Gadzhibekov, who at the time of his death was probing the illegal demolition of a building in Makhachkala.
Amirov, however, denied that he had any political interests in Kaspiisk, or that he had any reason to kill Gadzhibekov, whom he referred to as "just a kid." He pointed out that the initial investigation into the Kaspiisk attack, in which no one was injured, was for "hooliganism," for which the punishment is far less harsh than for an act of terrorism.
Amirov further denied any acquaintance with any of the six men the prosecution claims Abdulgalimov co-opted to perpetrate the assassination and the missile attack. Amirov is supposed to have hired Abdulgalimov, who in turn is said to have recruited the other six. The six, for their part, said they have never met Amirov and have only ever seen him on TV.
Amirov also said the testimony of his co-defendants had been extracted under torture. Abdulgalimov had similarly testified in April 2014 that he had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while in pretrial detention in Daghestan.
Dzhaparov, too, has said he was subjected to electric shocks and had been warned that he would be transferred to a cell with habitual criminals unless he paid a substantial bribe.
The testimony of other witnesses for the prosecution consists, according to Amirov, primarily of speculation and rumor concerning his imputed motives.
Abdulgalimov was also a key witness in the trial in 2014 of Amirov and Dzhaparov on a charge of plotting to kill a rival politician, Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Daghestan administration of the Federal Pension Fund, by shooting down his plane with a ground-to-air missile. Abdulgalimov described to the court in detail how he met personally with Amirov in April 2012 and agreed to his request to obtain a ground-to-air missile to shoot down a plane in which Murtazaliyev would be travelling.
Amirov, however, denied ever meeting with Abdulgalimov, and produced witnesses who confirmed that Abdulgalimov did not enter Amirov's office on the day he claimed the meeting took place. Amirov's defense also challenged the authenticity of video footage presented by the prosecution apparently showing Abdulgalimov retrieving the missile from the hiding place where he had buried it.
Amirov steadfastly rejected the charge against him as utter rubbish, based on rumor, wholly unsubstantiated, and politically motivated. Even though Amirov's lawyers pointed to numerous glaring flaws and discrepancies in the prosecution's case, the three presiding judges found both him and Dzhaparov guilty, and sentenced them to 10 and 8 1/2 years in jail, respectively.
One month later, in August 2014, Abdulgalimov concluded a plea bargain with the prosecution under which he pleaded guilty to charges of organizing, or participating in, an illegal armed formation; banditism; an act of terrorism; an attempt on the life of a judiciary official; and illegal trade in arms. He was sentenced in late September to 11 years in a strict-regime facility. The prosecution had asked for 17 years.
Speaking in court last week on the opening day of his trial, Amirov claimed that the prosecutors fabricated the case against him on orders from his political enemies, but did not name them. As noted above, Amirov was influential enough to have posed a challenge to Abdulatipov in a direct election for the post of republic head. But even before Amirov's arrest on June 1, 2013, Daghestan's parliament had voted to amend the republic's constitution to stipulate that the republic head is elected by parliament, rather than in a direct ballot.
The fact that Amirov is currently on trial for a second time on poorly substantiated charges suggests that for whatever reasons, one or more top-level federal politicians have both a vested interest in ending his political career, and enough clout to pressure the presiding judges to hand down the required "guilty" verdict. Amirov himself said an investigator told him to his face that he should plead guilty, because "there's an order from high up, you understand, and we can't do anything."
At the time of Amirov's arrest two years ago, public opinion in Daghestan was split between those who assumed that he was the victim of political intrigue, and those who lent credence to the rumors that in the course of his career he had resorted to embezzlement, blackmail, and even murder. That latter perception was eloquently summarized by the blogger who commented that "there is not enough water in the Caspian to wash clean his sins, and we know it."
Recently, however, as a result of Amirov's remarkable fortitude during his two-year ordeal, the number of people who sympathize with his plight (he is wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries sustained in 1993 during one of several assassination attempts, and suffers from diabetes and hepatitis ) has not diminished, but may according to Chernovik even have increased, while the number of those convinced that the charges against him are indeed politically motivated has sky-rocketed.
-- Liz Fuller