In many respects, Karachayevo-Cherkessia is the poster child among the republics of the North Caucasus.
It has largely been spared the low-level fighting between security forces and the Islamic insurgency that still continues in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Its parliament has passed legislation regulating the ownership of land that precludes the kind of ethnically tinged disputes common in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria between Kabardian businessmen (the largest ethnic group) and Balkar villagers who account for just 12 percent of the population. And its economy is flourishing under young and personable republic head Rashid Temrezov.
By virtue of its relative stability, Karachayevo-Cherkessia is proving increasingly attractive to investors and tourists, and is the sole republic in the region whose budget for 2015 is not predicated on a hefty deficit.
Yet two trends mar this overall positive picture. The first is the regularity with which men detained by police for minor infringements are found dead in their cells just hours later. And the second is the apparent lack of professionalism and objectivity of the republic's courts, which regularly hand down "guilty" verdicts in high-profile trials in which the prosecution fails to present convincing evidence (or sometimes, according to defense lawyers, any evidence at all) that the accused has committed a crime.
Those two trends converged in the case of Cherkessk deputy police chief Ruslan Rakhayev, who was found guilty in July 2013 of beating detainee Dakhir Dzhankezov to death, despite extensive evidence exonerating him. Rakhayev appealed the 13-year prison term handed down to him to the republic's Supreme Court, which overturned the verdict and called for a new investigation.
Five more local police personnel went on trial in January 2015 accused of torturing detainee Murat Borlakov to death in February 2014. In August 2014, the republican prosecutor overruled an investigator's decision not to open a criminal case in connection with the death in pretrial detention in January 2014 of Artur Aydinov. Aydinov's relatives and lawyer say he was subjected to torture.
Similarly disquieting is the series of trials in which some 60-70 men, in groups ranging from four to 29, have been found guilty, often on the flimsiest evidence, of seeking to overthrow the republic's leadership with the aim of establishing an Islamic state, and/or of attacking police, illegal possession of weapons, and membership of an illegal armed group.
A further flawed judgment may be imminent in the case of Nazbi-hadzhi Adzhiyev, the former imam of the Kislovodsk mosque, who is accused of instigating the murder in September 2009 of Ismail-hadzhi Bostanov, deputy chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol Krai and longtime rector of Karachayevo-Cherkessia's Islamic Institute.
Adzhiyev, 43, denies any role in Bostanov's killing, which he described as "a tragedy for Islam, for the people, for the entire republic." His former parishioner Salavat Gandayev, who was jailed in August 2012 for 19 years for Bostanov's murder, has testified that Adzhiyev played no part in it, and that he acted of his own volition.
Bostanov was killed in a drive-by shooting in Cherkessk on September 20, 2009, in which his 16-year-old son was seriously injured. On December 17, four suspects were arrested: Nizhny Teberda municipality head Rashid Blimgotov, and three unemployed local residents, two of whom were apparently later released. Two days later, Gandayev was apprehended when the ship on which he was returning from the hajj docked in Sochi.
Adzhiyev was detained at the end of December 2009 at the airport in Mineralnye Vody on suspicion of organizing the killing. A seventh suspect, Ramazan Berdiyev, the nephew of Ismail Berdiyev, head of the Coordinating Center of Muftis of the Caucasus, was arrested in Moscow on February 3.
Within weeks of Adzhiyev's arrest, members of his congregation had collected several thousand signatures in his support. One of them, Tokmak Gadzhayev, said that "we all love and respect [Adzhiyev]," whom he characterized as "espousing not leftist or rightist or extremist, but centrist views in Islam," and as adhering "to the correct, classical interpretations of the Koran and Sunna."
That statement is at odds with the investigators' characterization of Adzhiyev's sermons as "calling for the use of force with regard to persons who preach traditional Islam."
After several postponements, the trial began in December 2010 of five men: Blimgotov, Gandayev, and Adzhiyev were charged with murder, forming an illegal armed group, and illegal possession of weapons. Berdiyev and Taulan Temirov were charged with being accessories to the killing. All the accused were Karachais, as was Bostanov.
The investigators claimed that in the spring of 2009, Blimgotov recruited a criminal band, of which Gandayev was a member, with the express intention of eliminating members of the clergy whose views they considered unacceptable. At a meeting in April 2009 in the village of Uchkeken, the two allegedly persuaded Adzhiyev to join them, and Adzhiyev and Berdiyev talked Gandayev into agreeing to kill Bostanov.
Adzhiyev's brother Umar, however, claimed that the investigators had absolutely no evidence to substantiate the charge against Adzhiyev.
In July 2011, the trial was halted pending further investigation and to incorporate additional charges relating to robberies allegedly committed by Blimgotov's armed gang. During that investigation, it was decided that Adzhiyev should stand trial separately.
New proceedings began in late November 2011 against Blimgotov, Gandayev, Berdiyev, Temirov, and four other men. In August 2012, Gandayev was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the killing of Bostanov, but the court ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove that Berdiyev and Blimgotov incited him to commit that murder.
Blimgotov, who had protested his innocence of the charges against him from the outset, was acquitted of murder, banditry, and forming an illegal armed group, but found guilty of concealing a serious crime by having helped Gandayev to destroy the car and weapon he used, and fined 100,000 rubles ($1,644 at the current exchange rate).
Ramazan Berdiyev was found guilty of robbery and jailed for five years, but the three presiding judges ruled that his involvement in Bostanov's murder was not proven.
The other five men, including Temirov, received labor-camp terms ranging from five to eight years for armed robbery.
It was only in November 2014 that Adzhiyev went on trial for the second time, on a charge of having incited Gandayev to kill Bostanov, purportedly out of jealousy and in the hope of succeeding him as deputy mufti. By that time, Adzhiyev had spent almost five years in pretrial detention and was seriously ill.
Testifying by video-link, Gandayev denied that Adzhiyev ever tried to persuade him to kill Bostanov. Of the remaining 23 witnesses for the prosecution, the only one to make any comment on Adzhiyev reportedly characterized him as "not the kind of person to commit such a crime."
In his final address to the court, Adzhiyev again insisted he was innocent. He rejected as ridiculous the motives imputed to him, stressing that he barely knew Bostanov and never had any dealings with him. He also pointed out that the argument that he hoped to succeed Bostanov as deputy mufti was "absurd," given that the deputy mufti is elected by some 200 fellow clerics, rather than appointed. He concluded by declaring that his purpose in life, is "to be of use to my country, my fellow citizens, my town, my people, by appealing to them to do good and helping them to avoid doing wrong. That is my calling before the Almighty, that is what I studied to do."
On February 9, the prosecutor called for a 12-year labor-camp term for Adzhiyev. Sentence is to be pronounced on March 6.
-- Liz Fuller