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On Russia's Extremism Watch List: 'Is It Just Because We Wear The Hijab?'

A photo released by the public relations center of the Russian security services showing the arrest of alleged Islamic State extremists in Daghestan. (file image)
A photo released by the public relations center of the Russian security services showing the arrest of alleged Islamic State extremists in Daghestan. (file image)

Madina works in a children's center in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's North Caucasus Republic of Daghestan. In January, she was stopped at a routine traffic roadblock. That's when she learned that she is on the extremism-prevention watch list of the local Interior Ministry branch.

Since then, her life has been virtually one continuous run-in with the law.

"To say that they are persecuting us would be an understatement," Madina, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "They call us. They bang on our door. They might show up at 3 a.m. or at 5 a.m. and demand that I come to the precinct for questioning. And if I'm not home, they go around to all the neighbors, demanding to be told where I am."

Madina's case is far from unique. In fact, authorities have told two of Madina's sisters that they are also on the highly secret "prophylactic list" of people the security forces are monitoring for potential terrorist involvement. Like many people caught up in this story, Madina says she has no idea why the authorities have focused on her.

"We don't have any militants in our family," she said. "None of my relatives has gone to Syria. We don't have any idea why they have created such a colorful life for us. Is it just because my sisters and I wear the hijab?"

Officials in the North Caucasus -- which has been a source of extremists for decades, especially in the wake of two brutal wars the government fought against separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s -- have released no formal information about how the list is compiled, what it is used for, or how many people are on it.

Thousands Of 'Wahhabis'

Daghestan President Ramazan Abdulatipov has said he estimates there are about 10,000 "Wahhabis" in his republic. The head of the regional Interior Ministry branch, Abdurashid Magomedov, has mentioned a figure of 16,000 "extremists." Activists suspect as many as 20,000 people may be on the list.

In June 2016, the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights issued a report sharply criticizing the watch list, saying it had received "numerous" complaints from citizens that have ended up on it.

The report says that many of the people on the list are not radical Wahhabis or Salafis but rather are "representatives of traditional Islam (Sufis)."

The report questioned both the legal basis of creating such a list and its usefulness. "It is unclear how the list helps in the establishment of law and order in the republics" of the North Caucasus, the report states.

Abdurakhman, a 28-year-old truck driver who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, is a native of Makhachkala but now lives in Moscow. His wife recently gave birth to their son, but Abdurakhman is afraid to take the boy to visit relatives in Daghestan.

"I'd really like to see my family, but I am afraid that they will throw me in prison for something," he told RFE/RL. "For example, they might plant some drugs or weapons on me, which has happened many times to others. I am afraid they will imprison my order to frighten all my relatives."

Abdurakhman found out that he was on the watch list when he was stopped for an identification check on the Moscow subway several months ago. Since then, he has been detained by police for questioning "several" times. The procedure is always the same: They take his fingerprints and samples of blood and saliva, then photograph him. After that, he spends hours in a cell while police await a response from Makhachkala. Then they let him go.

Security forces conduct checks and inspections in Daghestan. (file image)
Security forces conduct checks and inspections in Daghestan. (file image)

Some of these detentions have caused Abdurakhman serious problems with his job as a truck driver. It is hard for him to explain that his delivery is late because he spent 10 or 12 hours in jail.

"He is terrified and keeps a low profile," Abdurakhman's lawyer, Aleksandr Ostrovsky, said. "Every time they grab him just like they grabbed people [during Stalin's Great Terror] in 1937 and take him off for God knows how long. And he has no idea how it is going to end. They won't tell us when or why he placed on the watch list. We have made official requests to the [Federal Security Service] and the Interior Ministry, but our inquiries just get sent to Daghestan and vanish."

"Yes, he is a Muslim," Ostrovsky said of his client. "He wears a neat beard. None of his relatives are terrorists. We believe there is no reason for him to be on the list."

Ostrovsky added that even several Moscow police officers have said Abdurakhman should be removed from the list and that they are tired of "wasting time on him."

Some Indication Of Change

Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, said he personally handed President Vladimir Putin a copy of the council's report on the watch list in September 2016. Putin said he would order officials to look into the matter.

After that, Shevchenko said, there was some indication of change. In the months after the meeting with Putin, Daghestani lawyer Aida Kasimova was able to get a court to order three of her clients removed from the list.

"We learned a lot about the list during those trials," Kasimova said. "We learned that they not only placed entire families on the list, but even entire companies. First they would put the director on the list and then all the employees."

Kasimova said that she currently has several cases pending, but progress has been slow.

"We get completely different answers from the Center on Combating Extremism when we ask about the same people," Kasimova said. "Recently they told us that the watch list does not exist, while in the past they confirmed that it does. We are now preparing a case for the Supreme Court of Daghestan asking it to rule that the whole list is illegal."

Aleksandr Mukomolov, another member of the presidential human rights council, does not endorse such a sweeping solution to the problem, noting that the problem of extremism in Daghestan remains serious.

"Several thousand Daghestanis went to fight in Syria," he said. "And if they return with an assignment, we could see many terrorist acts. These people represent a serious potential threat and, of course, they and people close to them should be under the control of the special services. "

"But you can't 'watch-list' the entire population," Mukomolov added. "After the problem was reported to Putin, complaints about unreasonable detentions have gone down slightly. But the problem persists."

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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