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The trial of 57 men over attacks on police and security facilities in Kabardino-Balkaria lasted for four and a half years.

On December 23, after a trial lasting 4 and 1/2 years, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Supreme Court finally passed sentence on 57 men accused of participating in the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the republic's capital, in October 2005.

Of the 57, 46 pleaded not guilty; the other 11 admitted only illegal possession of weapons. According to Russian journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, "no more than half a dozen" of them actually took part in the attacks. (He did not name them.)

Five of the accused, including former Guantanamo inmate Rasul Kudayev, who had a triple alibi were sentenced to life imprisonment; three -- Anzor Ashev, Zalim Ulimbashev, and Kazbek Budtuyev -- received sentences shorter than the nine years they have already spent in custody, and walked free from the courtroom. The remaining 49 were jailed for between 10 and 23 years.

The Nalchik attacks served to highlight how the armed resistance to Moscow's recourse to brute force in the North Caucasus spread during the decade following the start of the first (1994-1996) Chechen war -- initially to Daghestan, then to Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In Ingushetia, it was the systematic abduction by security personnel of young men known to be practicing Muslims that apparently impelled their siblings and friends to join the insurgency.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, by contrast, the young men who perpetrated the Nalchik attacks were mostly themselves practicing Muslims who had been harassed, detained, and roughed up by the local police after incurring the suspicion and enmity of the official Muslim clergy. That process of gratuitous reprisals and the anger and alienation they triggered has been chronicled in detail by the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial.

An estimated 150-200 inexperienced fighters took part in the assault on October 13, 2005 on 15 different Interior Ministry and state security buildings and police posts across Nalchik, ignoring the advice of their mentor, renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, that they were not yet combat-ready. ("The Guardian" one week later quoted a witness to the fighting who recalled hearing one of the young attackers holed up in the security-service building yell to a comrade-in-arms, "How do you reload a grenade launcher?")

The operation was a disaster: Up to 95 of the attackers were officially reported killed, although lawyers and human rights activists say up to half were rounded up and summarily executed only after the fighting died down on October 14. Photos of the dead men show that many of them had been massively beaten. At least two had bullet wounds to the face or head from apparent execution-style killings.

According to their relatives and lawyers, many of the men who went on trial were similarly detained days or even weeks after the attack. Some, including Kudayev, who was attending a funeral, had cast-iron alibis. Others, such as Rustam Shugunov and Artur Kelemetov, say they were pressured by friends to take part in the attack, but fled the scene of the fighting without firing a single shot. Shugunov and Kelemetov were nonetheless jailed for 16 and 18 years respectively.

In virtually every case, the indictment was reportedly based on incriminating "confessions" extracted from the accused under torture during the pre-trial investigation, and/or the testimony of police officers. Azamat Akhkubekov dismissed the indictment against him as "a fairy-tale," while Arsen Boziyev commented that "one would have to be Batman to commit so many crimes within the space of one hour." Under apparent torture, some of the accused incriminated others during interrogation.

Paradoxically, every single one of the accused was acquitted of murder, but found guilty of lesser charges such as terrorism, banditry, armed insurrection, illegal possession of weapons, and attempting to kill members of law-enforcement agencies. In other words, as Dzhemal commented, "there was an uprising, the fighting went on for 24 hours, 35 police officers and 14 civilians were killed according to official data, but none of the accused had anything to do with those deaths," which the judges presumably blamed on the 95 attackers reportedly killed in the course of the fighting.

Like the pre-trial investigation, the court proceedings too were, according to lawyers and relatives of the accused, conducted "so barbarically" (Dzhemal's term) that all the accused, whether innocent or guilty, should have been acquitted on the grounds of procedural violations.

Over a year ago, when the prosecution asked for specific prison terms ranging from 4 and 1/2 years to life, the mothers of nine of the accused addressed an open letter to then Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Arsen Kanokov, who had been appointed to that post just weeks before the 2005 attack.

Citing the mistreatment of the accused during the pre-trial investigation and the procedural violations during the court proceedings, the signatories affirmed that "what is taking place…cannot be called anything except a thirst for revenge that bears no relation to justice." They appealed to Kanokov to do all in his power to ensure that the verdicts handed down were just, warning that "an unjust verdict could destabilize the situation in our region and undermine the people's trust in the judicial system and the authorities as a whole."

Kanokov was dismissed just weeks after that appeal. Addressing a session of the republic's Antiterrorism Commission on December 25, his successor as republic head, police Colonel-General Yury Kokov, a former head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for Countering Extremism, stressed the need for more effective measures to eradicate "terrorism." "The republic has come through serious ordeals, and everything must be done to ensure that the tragic events of the recent past are never repeated," Kokov said.

-- Liz Fuller

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (center) has been accused of meeting out punishment to the relatives of terrorists. (file photo)

It was only to be expected that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's entourage would fall over themselves to defend him against the implication by Dozhd TV journalist Ksenia Sobchak that his orders to raze to the ground the homes of the families of Chechen fighters who kill police officers were unconstitutional.

Less expected, however, was the number of Russian State Duma deputies who have likewise sought to exonerate Kadyrov, while denouncing what they termed Sobchak's failure to comprehend the nature of the "antiterrorism" campaign underway in Chechnya.

Sobchak raised the issue on December 18 during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference, asking him to comment in his capacity as a lawyer on the constitutionality of Kadyrov's demand two weeks earlier for an even more intense crackdown on anyone suspected of links to the Islamic insurgency.

Addressing a meeting of law-enforcement personnel on December 5, one day after Chechen insurgents occupied two buildings in Grozny and killed 14 police officers, Kadyrov said that henceforth the families of insurgents will be held responsible for their actions. He warned specifically that the relatives of fighters who kill police officers will be expelled from Chechnya and barred from returning, and their homes will be razed to the ground.

Sobchak construed Kadyrov's words as "a de facto declaration that the laws of the Russian Federation and the Russian Constitution are not enforced on the territory of the Chechen Republic."

Responding to Sobchak's question, Putin stressed that, "in Russia, everyone must abide by the laws of the country. No one is considered guilty until he has been sentenced by a court." But he then proceeded to argue that "in the overwhelming majority of cases," the relatives of "terrorists" have advance knowledge of their plans. That does not, however, Putin continued, "give anyone, including the leader of Chechnya, the right to engage in extrajudicial reprisals." Putin disclosed that an investigation is already underway to establish the identity of the masked men who torched the homes of fighters' relatives.

Putin further acknowledged that Kadyrov's "emotional" outburst was understandable in light of the casualties the Chechen police incurred during the fighting, and that it was possibly made in response to the public mood at a mass meeting Kadyrov convened in Grozny to denounce "terrorism." That rally, however, took place on December 6, the day after Kadyrov announced that the principle of collective responsibility was to be extended to fighters' relatives.

Kadyrov's press secretary Alvi Karimov, who was present at Putin's press conference, immediately branded Sobchak's remarks both libelous and untrue, and he hinted that legal action might be taken against her. He further accused her of "distorting the facts," and categorically denied that Kadyrov has ever violated the constitution.

Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak asks her controversial question during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference in Moscow.
Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak asks her controversial question during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference in Moscow.

State Duma deputy and former Chechen Republic Nationalities, Press, and Information Minister Shamsail Saraliyev, who in recent months has emerged as a vocal promoter of Kadyrov's political credo, similarly dismissed as "ravings" Sobchak's insinuation that Chechnya does not abide by Russian law. Saraliyev rejected any possible connection between Kadyrov's statement and the subsequent burning of homes, which he attributed to the fact that "now peace has been restored, people are angry with the terrorists and those who abet them."

It is worth noting that neither Karimov nor Saraliyev is quoted as making any reference to Putin's response to Sobchak, in particular his assertion that no one, including Kadyrov, has the right to engage in extrajudicial reprisals. The same holds true for other State Duma deputies and Public Chamber members who commented on Sobchak's question. Vladimir Vasilev, who heads the Duma faction of the majority United Russia faction, affirmed that "we support the actions of Ramzan Kadyrov in fighting terrorism within the framework of the law."

Olga Batalina, who chairs the Duma Committee on Labor and Social Policy, construed Sobchak's words as "an insult to the Chechen people," given that Chechnya "is essentially defending the whole of Russia against penetration by terrorist groups." She praised Kadyrov's role in restoring Chechnya and "uniting the Chechen people," and expressed pride in "those Chechens who secured the release of the Life News journalists" detained in Ukraine in May. Kadyrov's plenipotentiary in Ukraine, Ramzan Tsitsulayev, reportedly fled from Russia to Kyiv earlier this month after a botched attempt to arrest him in Moscow in connection with an illegal cash withdrawals racket.

Andrey Lugovoy (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), who is deputy chair of the Duma Security Committee, argued that the question of how best to fight terrorism should be left to professionals. He categorically denied that Kadyrov had advocated extrajudicial reprisals, explaining that the Chechen leader was clearly referring to the insurgents' support personnel.

Vyacheslav Bochorov, a member of the Public Chamber who participated in the operation that ended the September 2004 Beslan hostage-taking, said Sobchak's question shows clearly that she does not support "effective measures against terrorism."

There is of course no way to determine whether or not those statements in support of Kadyrov are part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign on his behalf, a campaign that may well culminate in the ongoing probe establishing that it was insurgents themselves who torched the houses of their slain comrades-in-arms' families in order to embarrass Kadyrov. That conclusion would be in line with Kadyrov's assertion to "Izvestia" that "the fighters of today have not strayed from the right path, they are sick. There is no way to cure them; all you can do is destroy them."

(Never mind that blaming the Chechen insurgents is difficult to reconcile either with Kadyrov's assertion that there are no fighters left in Chechnya, or with eyewitness reports from Gudermes that the buildings were demolished under the supervision of uniformed servicemen who first cordoned off the street and then brought in bulldozers.)

One final detail worthy of note is Sobchak's earlier cordial relationship with Kadyrov. The daughter of Putin's one-time mentor, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Ksenia was a member of Putin's closest inner circle until she defected to the political opposition two years ago. In January 2005, she accompanied Kadyrov to the ceremonial opening of a waterpark in Gudermes.

-- Liz Fuller

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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