On December 23, after a trial lasting 4 and 1/2 years, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Supreme Court finally passed sentence on 57 men accused of participating in the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the republic's capital, in October 2005.
Of the 57, 46 pleaded not guilty; the other 11 admitted only illegal possession of weapons. According to Russian journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, "no more than half a dozen" of them actually took part in the attacks. (He did not name them.)
Five of the accused, including former Guantanamo inmate Rasul Kudayev, who had a triple alibi were sentenced to life imprisonment; three -- Anzor Ashev, Zalim Ulimbashev, and Kazbek Budtuyev -- received sentences shorter than the nine years they have already spent in custody, and walked free from the courtroom. The remaining 49 were jailed for between 10 and 23 years.
The Nalchik attacks served to highlight how the armed resistance to Moscow's recourse to brute force in the North Caucasus spread during the decade following the start of the first (1994-1996) Chechen war -- initially to Daghestan, then to Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In Ingushetia, it was the systematic abduction by security personnel of young men known to be practicing Muslims that apparently impelled their siblings and friends to join the insurgency.
In Kabardino-Balkaria, by contrast, the young men who perpetrated the Nalchik attacks were mostly themselves practicing Muslims who had been harassed, detained, and roughed up by the local police after incurring the suspicion and enmity of the official Muslim clergy. That process of gratuitous reprisals and the anger and alienation they triggered has been chronicled in detail by the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial.
An estimated 150-200 inexperienced fighters took part in the assault on October 13, 2005 on 15 different Interior Ministry and state security buildings and police posts across Nalchik, ignoring the advice of their mentor, renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, that they were not yet combat-ready. ("The Guardian" one week later quoted a witness to the fighting who recalled hearing one of the young attackers holed up in the security-service building yell to a comrade-in-arms, "How do you reload a grenade launcher?")
The operation was a disaster: Up to 95 of the attackers were officially reported killed, although lawyers and human rights activists say up to half were rounded up and summarily executed only after the fighting died down on October 14. Photos of the dead men show that many of them had been massively beaten. At least two had bullet wounds to the face or head from apparent execution-style killings.
According to their relatives and lawyers, many of the men who went on trial were similarly detained days or even weeks after the attack. Some, including Kudayev, who was attending a funeral, had cast-iron alibis. Others, such as Rustam Shugunov and Artur Kelemetov, say they were pressured by friends to take part in the attack, but fled the scene of the fighting without firing a single shot. Shugunov and Kelemetov were nonetheless jailed for 16 and 18 years respectively.
In virtually every case, the indictment was reportedly based on incriminating "confessions" extracted from the accused under torture during the pre-trial investigation, and/or the testimony of police officers. Azamat Akhkubekov dismissed the indictment against him as "a fairy-tale," while Arsen Boziyev commented that "one would have to be Batman to commit so many crimes within the space of one hour." Under apparent torture, some of the accused incriminated others during interrogation.
Paradoxically, every single one of the accused was acquitted of murder, but found guilty of lesser charges such as terrorism, banditry, armed insurrection, illegal possession of weapons, and attempting to kill members of law-enforcement agencies. In other words, as Dzhemal commented, "there was an uprising, the fighting went on for 24 hours, 35 police officers and 14 civilians were killed according to official data, but none of the accused had anything to do with those deaths," which the judges presumably blamed on the 95 attackers reportedly killed in the course of the fighting.
Like the pre-trial investigation, the court proceedings too were, according to lawyers and relatives of the accused, conducted "so barbarically" (Dzhemal's term) that all the accused, whether innocent or guilty, should have been acquitted on the grounds of procedural violations.
Over a year ago, when the prosecution asked for specific prison terms ranging from 4 and 1/2 years to life, the mothers of nine of the accused addressed an open letter to then Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Arsen Kanokov, who had been appointed to that post just weeks before the 2005 attack.
Citing the mistreatment of the accused during the pre-trial investigation and the procedural violations during the court proceedings, the signatories affirmed that "what is taking place…cannot be called anything except a thirst for revenge that bears no relation to justice." They appealed to Kanokov to do all in his power to ensure that the verdicts handed down were just, warning that "an unjust verdict could destabilize the situation in our region and undermine the people's trust in the judicial system and the authorities as a whole."
Kanokov was dismissed just weeks after that appeal. Addressing a session of the republic's Antiterrorism Commission on December 25, his successor as republic head, police Colonel-General Yury Kokov, a former head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for Countering Extremism, stressed the need for more effective measures to eradicate "terrorism." "The republic has come through serious ordeals, and everything must be done to ensure that the tragic events of the recent past are never repeated," Kokov said.
-- Liz Fuller