Reports of seemingly arbitrary shootings by security personnel of unarmed, law-abiding young men who are subsequently branded Islamic militants on the basis of what critics claim is fabricated evidence have become commonplace in the North Caucasus over the past 10 to 15 years.
Despite repeated statements of concern by organizations like Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group (ICG), most such cases never come to court, even if a formal investigation is undertaken.
But the killing in August 2016 of two teenage brothers by security personnel, who claimed they were armed insurgents who resisted arrest, may prove an exception.
Fifteen months after the event, Daghestani investigators have finally opened a criminal case into their deaths. Whether the investigation is in response to a formal appeal lodged two days earlier by the young men’s father with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) or part of the broader probe by acting Republic of Daghestan head Vladimir Vasilyev of suspected abuses by law enforcement organs to which predecessor Ramazan Abdulatipov apparently turned a blind eye is not yet clear.
As pieced together from statements by local residents, the circumstances of the death of Gasanguseyn Gasanguseynov, who was 19 at the time he died, and his brother Nabi, who was two years younger, were as follows:
The two young men lived with their parents in the small mountain village of Goor-Khindakh, some 120 kilometers southwest of Makhachkala. They eked out a living from watching over fellow villagers’ sheep. There was no record of insurgent activity in the village.
Late on August 23, 2016, they phoned their mother to tell her the flock had been penned for the night and they were on their way home for supper, but they never arrived. Their bodies were found the following morning by a fellow herdsman. Both had been shot several times. They were wearing winter anoraks that relatives said did not belong to them and had automatic rifles slung around their necks, but the weapons had not been fired in the previous 24 hours.
According to their father, Murtazali Gasanguseynov, a police expert who examined the bodies pointed out that the holes in the fabric of the anoraks did not correspond to the location of the bullet wounds. That expert concluded that the men had been shot by military personnel.
Daghestani security forces, however, insisted that the brothers were Islamic militants who had refused to produce identification when asked and then opened fire on law enforcement personnel. Possibly for that reason, the police initially refused to hand over the bodies to the family for burial and relented only after irate villagers temporarily blocked two local highways. The villagers assert unanimously that the young Gasanguseynovs were not Islamic radicals but professed the strain of Sufi Islam endorsed by Daghestan’s official clergy.
The identity of the two brothers' killer or killers remains unclear. The news portal Caucasian Knot initially quoted an unnamed local police officer as saying that even though no formal counterterror operation had been announced, security personnel from elsewhere in Daghestan had been combing the district on the night the brothers died.
In February, however, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an official Daghestani Interior Ministry document, according to which the Daghestani Interior Ministry’s Counterextremism Center conducted a special operation on August 23 in the vicinity of Goor-Khindakh jointly with the Federal Security Service (FSB). The paper further quoted the deputy head of the FSB Directorate for Daghestan as denying that any such operation took place.
Villagers suspect the perpetrators were local police officers who had been seen in the village on the evening prior to the killings and spent the night in the local mosque.The killings triggered a wave of outrage across Daghestan. Within days, the residents of Goor-Khindakh addressed an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Prosecutor-General's Office and Investigative Committee stressing that there was no evidence to support the official claim that the young men were Islamic militants and demanding that those who killed them be held criminally responsible. Republic of Daghestan head Abdulatipov responded with a brief statement stressing that the republican prosecutor had launched an investigation and advocating patience until the findings became known. Meanwhile Maksim Shevchenko, a member of Putin’s Human Rights Council who had been refused registration to run in the State Duma elections as a candidate for Daghestan, traveled to Goor-Khindakh to meet with the brothers’ parents and publicly endorsed the villagers’ version of what had happened.
As of mid-November, the criminal investigation into the alleged attack by the young men on law enforcement personnel had been transferred from the local investigator’s office to that of Eduard Kaburneyev, the federal investigator for Daghestan. Members of a support group established to help the Gasanguseynov family’s lawyer establish the brothers’ innocence were reportedly being subjected to constant pressure.
In late February, the Gasanguseynovs appealed for help to the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial, but Bagrat Safaraliyev, the investigator responsible, refused to grant the lawyers tasked by Memorial to represent the Gasanguseynov family access to the case materials, the independent weekly Chernovik reported on March 17.
At that juncture, Murtazali Gasanguseynov filed a formal complaint against the republican investigators’ perceived failure to make any effort to clarify the circumstances of his sons’ deaths. A Makhachkala district court found that complaint justified and demanded action by the prosecutor’s office, according to Chernovik on March 23. The court also upheld the legal right of Gasanguseynov and his lawyers to the case materials, according to Caucasian Knot on April 3.
Although Daghestan’s Supreme Court upheld that ruling, Gasanguseynov never received formal notification that a criminal case had been launched, and in early November 2017 he addressed a formal complaint to that effect to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Days later, the original investigation into the alleged attack by the brothers on law enforcement personnel was closed and a new case opened into the killing of the two young men by unknown individuals, Murad Magomedov, a lawyer for Memorial, announced on November 27.
Speaking on November 29 at a press conference in Makhachkala convened by Magomedov, Murtazali Gasanguseynov again expressed his conviction that his sons were killed deliberately in retaliation for the shooting of a local judge several weeks earlier and that the organizer was the acting local police chief, who was subsequently confirmed in that post. Caucasian Knot quoted Gasanguseynov as saying he will continue the fight to clear his sons’ good name but doubts their killers will be brought to trial.