The strange and complex story of 22-year-old Said Mazhayev, the Chechen man sentenced to two years in prison for fighting with militants in Syria, continues, with his relatives insisting that he should have been acquitted and security officials saying his guilt was proven beyond reasonable doubt and his sentence is very light.
Mazhayev, a Grozny native, was sentenced on November 10 to two years in a penal colony.
The facts of his being in Syria are not in dispute: Mazhayev admitted that he traveled there in November 2013 and returned home to Chechnya in January (whereupon he was immediately arrested).
However, Mazhayev and his family say that he has been treated unfairly and that his two-year sentence is far too harsh. Mazhayev has appealed against his conviction.
On December 3, Mazhayev's relatives told the Caucasian Knot news outlet that they feared the young man would be transferred to a penal colony even though his appeal has not yet been reviewed.
The story of Mazhayev's brief sojourn in Syria appears to be rather confused.
Mazhayev has been convicted under Part 2, Article 208 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which deals with "participation in an illegal armed group in a foreign country for purposes contrary to the interests of the Russian Federation." The punishment for someone found guilty under that article is between five and 10 years in prison.
In the first place, there has been some confusion over which armed group Mazhayev fought with. Meanwhile, his relatives have suggested that there is no concrete evidence that Mazhayev took part in hostilities at all, while law enforcement officials insist that he was wounded in clashes.
'Free Syrian Army' Or 'Caucasus Emirate'? (Or Islamic State?)
Some reports of the trial quoted the investigating authorities as saying that Mazhayev had fought with the "Free Syrian Army," a highly unlikely situation. Other outlets said that Mazhayev was fighting with the "Caucasus Emirate" -- a reference to the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which now considers itself the Syrian branch of the Caucasus-based militant group the Caucasus Emirate. In November 2013, when Mazhayev came to Syria, the group was led by Umar al-Shishani, who left it to join the Islamic State group. It is possible, therefore, that Mazhayev was also part of Islamic State during his short time in Syria.
Did Mazhayev take part in the fighting?
Although Mazhayev's relatives have readily admitted that the young man had "really gone" to Syria, they say he did so to "defend Muslims against annihilation" by the Assad government and that after several weeks Mazhayev "understood he was mistaken about jihad in that country" and gone to Turkey and then Chechnya.
On December 3, one of Mazhayev's relatives told the Caucasian Knot that there had been "no video or photographic evidence that would indicate [Mazhaev's] direct participation in hostilities in Syria," that the charge against the young man was based mainly on his own testimony, and that the verdict was "influenced by the security services."
Mazhayev's relatives also argued that Mazhayev had returned to Chechnya after talking with law enforcement officials and that he should have therefore been acquitted or given a suspended sentence.
The law enforcement authorities present a different picture, however.
An officer from the Russian Investigative Committee in Chechnya told Caucasus Knot that Mazhayev's family was omitting an important detail about the 22-year-old's sojourn in Syria: that he went to Turkey in order to receive medical treatment after being wounded in the fighting.
"In one of the clashes, Said Mazhayev was shot in the leg and sent to Turkey for treatment.... If he had not been injured we don't know how long he might have spent in illegal armed groups participating in hostilities against government forces in Syria," the officer said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk