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On Russia's Extremism Watch List: 'I'm Afraid I Might Just Disappear'

Muslims at the Djuma Mosque in Makhachkala

MOSCOW -- Arsen Gasanov's nightmare began one afternoon at the end of February 2016. And it hasn't ended yet.

"I feel like Don Quixote," Gasanov told RFE/RL, "trying to defend myself from attacking windmills."

On that February day last year, Gasanov was on his way to pick up one of his six children at school when he realized he was 40 minutes early and decided to stop in at a mosque. A police officer stopped him outside the building, took a quick look at his passport, and hustled him into a nearby car with tinted windows for a trip down to the Sovetsky police station.

When he arrived, he found several dozen other young men sitting in the reception area. Everyone was questioned, photographed, and fingerprinted.

"They asked me how many years I have been going to the mosque," Gasanov recalled, "and what kind of Muslim I was, and which mosques I attend. I told them I'm not any particular kind of Muslim and I go to whatever mosque happens to be convenient. And that's the truth."

He signed a statement, but refused to leave his fingerprints, saying: "I don't want my prints to end up on some gun in the forest somewhere." To his surprise, the police let him go.

Only much later did Gasanov learn that his name had been added to a secret terrorism watch list as a potential "extremist."

Local human rights activists say the list was created on the basis of two orders issued by Daghestan's interior minister in April 2015 and April 2016.

"Neither of these orders has ever been made public," Galina Tarasova, a lawyer with the Conflict Zones project of the Memorial human rights center, who is representing Gasanov, told RFE/RL. But the consequences of being placed on the list are obvious and unpleasant, she said.

"If a person is in a car, he can be held at any traffic post for hours," Tarasova said. "There were cases when a person asked if he could leave Daghestan for a vacation or for medical treatment and he was told he'd be turned back at every traffic stop. [The authorities] hound their relatives, telephone constantly, ask after various unknown people, show up at their homes. We consider this a violation of the right to a private life."

Abdurashid Magomedov, Daghestan's interior minister
Abdurashid Magomedov, Daghestan's interior minister

Following lawsuits by Memorial, Daghestani Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov announced in early 2017 that the watch list had been cancelled and all its data had been destroyed. Tarasova said that after that announcement the detentions became fewer, but never stopped.

"But now it is harder to fight back," she said. "The watch list doesn't exist, but the way the police act hasn't changed. And that is the case with Arsen Gasanov."

Gasanov, a 40-year-old father of six, graduated from the Dzhemal Artistic Academy and the Daghestan Pedagogical University as a jeweler. After graduation, he moved to Moscow, where he lived for 10 years and was married. He then returned to Makhachkala and began working as a design consultant. About 15 years ago, he began occasionally visiting the mosque, like many in the republic where more than 80 percent of the population is Muslim. But, he emphasizes, neither he nor any of his relatives has ever practiced any radical form of Islam.

In October 2016, police officer Murad Khalayev showed up at Gasanov's home. He explained that from now on he would be calling every week to find out what Gasanov had been up to. He asked Gasanov to come to the police station to give his fingerprints and DNA and voice samples.

He was also given a statement signed by Lieutenant Colonel Murad Kurbanov that read: "You have been placed on the watch list under the category of 'extremist.'" Khalayev told Gasanov that if he tried to return to Moscow -- where he and his family are still officially registered -- then he would be declared a fugitive and an arrest warrant would be issued.

That was when Gasanov appealed to Memorial for help.

"As it turned out, I was sitting in Memorial when I got an SMS [text message, from Khalayev] saying that he had issued a warrant for me." In fact, that turned out not to be true. Gasanov filed suit.

The case only came before a court in March after months of delays caused by the police simply ignoring summonses. In the end, Judge Eldar Atayev rejected Gasanov's complaint, saying that he had not presented proof that he had been included on the watch list. The letter from Kurbanov was not considered sufficient.

"The Interior Ministry representative [at the hearing] just played dumb," Gasanov recalled. "He said the case had nothing to do with him and that I just made everything up."

Khalayev stopped calling after the court's ruling, but other officers called instead. One, who identified himself as Police Captain Nuriddin, ordered Gasanov to appear before an Interior Ministry "commission" with all his documents in order to be removed from the watch list. Gasanov refused to hand over his documents and said he would continue to pursue his case through the courts.

The Daghestani Supreme Court overturned the lower-court ruling and sent the case back for reconsideration. The second time around, Judge Mikhrab Adziyev asked the police if Gasanov was on the watch list and he received a letter signed by the same Lieutenant Colonel Kurbanov.

In the letter, Kurbanov says he did not order Gasanov to be placed on the watch list.

"We do not currently have any testimony or other information indicating that citizen Gasanov is a follower of religious extremism," Kurbanov added. "Police officials are not conducting any prophylactic measures against this citizen."

Although Kurbanov had written the exact opposite less than one year before, the judge again ruled that there was no evidence that Gasanov had been placed on the watch list and, anyway, the watch list itself had been officially cancelled several months before. Case dismissed.

But the harassment continues. Roughly once a week, police show up at Gasanov's home. Khalayev started appearing again.

When questioned by RFE/RL, Khalayev said only the antiterrorism department can answer questions about the watch list. He declined to answer any other questions, citing "secrecy." Kurbanov could not be reached for comment.

RFE/RL requests for comment from the Russian Interior Ministry went unanswered.

The police came most recently on October 16, when Gasanov was not at home.

"At first [my family] didn't open the door, but they kicked it with their feet so loudly that it became embarrassing in front of the neighbors," Gasanov said. "Just imagine all that noise echoing through the corridors."

When Gasanov's mother finally opened the door and said her son was not in, the police officer told her: "Don't be smart." Then he threatened to jail Gasanov's 12-year-old niece for recording the encounter with her telephone. Gasanov sent the video and other evidence to the Investigative Committee of Daghestan's Prosecutor-General's Office.

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But he worries the police will ramp up the pressure on him as he takes more measures to assert his rights.

"I am afraid that these wolves in epaulettes will either plant something on me or that I will just disappear," Gasanov said. "I have six children, including infant twins. Who is going to feed them?"

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khazov-Cassia.