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'Suicide Attacker In The Hat': The Russian Man Wrongly ID'd As St. Petersburg Bomber

  • Carl Schreck

Ilyas Nikitin as shown in leaked CCTV footage (left) and after voluntarily going to the police.

Ilyas Nikitin says he had more in mind than clearing his name when he voluntarily went to the police following the deadly subway bombing in St. Petersburg this week.

"I went to tackle the matter for the whole community, because now everyone will consider Muslims terrorists. That's why I did it," Nikitin, who was released after speaking with police, told RFE/RL in an interview.

Nikitin, a truck driver and Russian Army veteran who converted to Islam, had his life turned upside down after television and online outlets published reports and leaked images suggesting he was behind the April 3 bombing, which killed 14 and injured dozens more.

The images, which showed the heavily bearded Nikitin dressed in traditional Islamic hat and garb, circulated widely on social media, with amateur digital sleuths further alleging his complicity.

Leaked CCTV footage, a national broadcaster suggested, also showed Nikitin looking intently at his cell phone outside the central metro station from which the train departed shortly before the blast. The report implied that the man shown in the video had acted suspiciously.

No evidence has emerged, however, that Nikitin had anything to do with the bombing, which authorities now say was carried out by Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Russian citizen originally from Kyrgyzstan who died in the blast.

That hasn't made the past few days any easier for Nikitin. He was removed from a flight after passengers refused to fly with him. He said he was briefly detained by police after making it to Moscow. And he said he had heard his employer was seeking to get rid of him.

"I haven't made it to Novy Urengoi yet, but I was told that they were trying to fire me," he told RFE/RL on April 5, referring to the city in the central Bashkortostan region, a republic in Russia with a large Muslim population.

The Life.ru news site, widely seen as having links to Russian security services, on April 6 cited a man it identified as Niktin's manager as saying that the company had no plans to fire Nikitin. "These are just rumors," the man was quoted as saying.

Nikitin was quoted by the website Islamnews.ru on April 6 as saying that he intends to return to work and that his employer, in fact, has supported him.

The national television network REN-TV appears to have been the first major media outlet to publish leaked security-camera footage of Nikitin, describing him in its report as the "alleged terrorist" behind the attack. (The article and accompanying Twitter post are still available.)

"The man is sporting a beard. He is wearing an Islamic hat. By the way, authorities believe the man may have purposely dressed to throw investigators off his trail. After the terrorist left the bomb in the subway car, he left the train...and calmly walked away from the subway," REN-TV wrote.

Other media outlets also published surveillance-camera images of Nikitin in connection with the explosion. Life.ru has taken to calling him the "suicide attacker in the hat."

Despite the fact that police released him after questioning, the reports linking him to the attack appear to have made a deep impression on fellow travelers.

He said that when he flew out of St. Petersburg on April 3 he faced a "negative reaction from passengers" but that the captain made the call to allow him to fly.

It was a different story after he landed in Moscow, where Nikitin was pulled off a flight to the southern city of Orenburg on April 4.

The state-run RIA Novosti news agency cited a representative of the Rossia airline as saying that he was removed prior to takeoff after passengers "informed the crew that a man sitting next to them was identical, in their opinion, to the person being sought in connection with the blasts in St. Petersburg."

Niktin told RFE/RL that he was not sure whether he would pursue a lawsuit against the company.

"That's a difficult, complicated question. They compensated me for the price of the flight, but from a legal standpoint, I don't know. I haven't looked into the legal nuances yet," he said.

He said he is also unsure about legal action against media outlets that circulated his photograph and suggested his involvement in the bombing.

"I haven't even talked to any lawyers about how all of this is done, though I was offered to meet with lawyers in Moscow," he said.

Nikitin wasn't the only person swept up in the flood of media speculation about who may have carried out the attack, echoing the high-profile misidentification of suspects following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

News outlets also suggested a Kazakh university student killed in the blast was a key suspect, though he is now considered an innocent victim.

Despite his ordeal in the aftermath of the bombing, Nikitin said he still believes that people who hold negative views about Muslims in Russia are "in the minority."

"For example, the people in the security services that I spoke with in St. Petersburg, the ones conducting the investigation, there are reasonable people there," he said. "They reacted reasonably, and I was able to leave St. Petersburg freely."

Russia's official government newspaper published an article in its April 6 edition with the headline: Forgive Us Andrei, referring to Nikitin's birth name.

An unidentified law enforcement source in St. Petersburg was quoted by the daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta as saying the authorities are looking for "the person who leaked Nikitin's photographs to the press."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian and Tatar-Bashkir services
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