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Critics Call New Russian Counterterror Law A Return To 'Collective Justice'

A memorial service for victims of the 2004 attack and hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, that killed nearly 400 people, many of them children.
A memorial service for victims of the 2004 attack and hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, that killed nearly 400 people, many of them children.
MOSCOW -- Critics say a new law designed to quell the insurgency in Russia's restive North Caucasus region revives the Stalin-era principles of collective guilt and collective justice.

President Vladimir Putin signed the legislation on November 3, requiring "close relatives and acquaintances" of those who commit acts of "terrorism" to pay damages -- both material and moral -- resulting from those acts.

It also empowers authorities to seize property from friends and relatives of suspected militants and provides for prison sentences of up to 10 years for those convicted of receiving training "aimed at carrying out terrorist activity."

"This is absolutely not normal. It's a return to the 1930s, when Stalin advocated collective responsibility for crimes which were carried out," Mairbek Vatchagayev, a North Caucasus analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and head of the Paris-based Center for Caucasus Research, says. "Once again, we've ended up there when Putin regards himself a supporter of Stalin and the Stalin period."

The legislation comes just four months before Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just a few hundred kilometers from the restive North Caucasus.

Fears that terrorism could mar the Sochi Olympics heightened last month after a female suicide bomber from Daghestan detonated explosives on a bus in Volgograd, killing six people and injuring 30 others.

Analysts say the law, which was entered into parliament before the Volgograd bombing and was passed rapidly in its wake, is part of the Kremlin's hardening line in the North Caucasus.

The authorities are also testing the DNA of conservative Muslim women in the region so as to identify them rapidly if they become suicide bombers, Reuters reports.

The law signed by Putin effectively mimics at a national level the tactic of persecuting relatives that has long been in place in Chechnya under its pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Vatchagayev said the tactic has made Chechnya "the most peaceful republic in the region" and in stark contrast to Daghestan and Ingushetia.

Vatchagayev says the Kremlin is hoping to emulate this success regionwide.

"Vladimir Putin has decided to implement the experience of the Chechen Republic across the whole North Caucasus," Vatchagayev says. "The law is almost entirely aimed at the North Caucasus against armed fighters."

Vatchagayev adds that the law is ambiguous because "relatives" and "close acquaintances" can denote a "whole clan" in predominantly Muslim republics like Chechnya.

Analysts say the law fits a hardening shift in how security forces are dealing with the insurgency ahead of the Olympics.

Andrei Soldatov, the founder of investigative website, which tracks the security services, says it signals an ongoing shift away from using incentives to get insurgents to lay down their arms.

"The tactics of the security services now are quite different than they were a year ago," Soldatov says. "A year ago, they combined special operations with non-special operations -- like encouraging people to come [in] from the forest and all these commissions of rehabilitations. It seems now that these kinds of activities have stopped in almost every North Caucasus republic and they [use] only this hard approach."

Soldatov was nonetheless unsure the measure would yield the intended result across the North Caucasus because of varying local conditions.

"I think it depends on which republic we are talking about," Soldatov says. "One thing is that in Chechnya everybody is scared by Kadyrov and his people. In this case, maybe the tactics would be effective in the short term. But I think the situation in Dagestan is completely different. There, the security services are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. And this kind of measure might only add to the sense of disappointment."