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The prosecutor has demanded prison terms of up to 20 years for eight young men from Kabardino-Balkaria on charges ranging from illegal possession of arms and establishing an illegal armed group to the attempted killing of a police officer, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on May 19.

At the same time, the prosecution proposed dropping the most controversial charge against the eight: that of plotting to overthrow the republic's leadership and establish an Islamic caliphate.

The accused, some of them Kabardians, some Balkars, all pleaded not guilty and said in court that they confessed to the charges against them only after being beaten and subjected to protracted electric shocks. The presiding judge ordered a probe into the torture claims in April that failed to substantiate them. The alleged leader of the group, Oleg Miskhozhev, a keen amateur wrestler, claimed in court that for 18 months he had needed a cane to walk because "they did my back in."

The defense lawyers say the case against the eight men is not backed by hard evidence. They also pinpoint inaccuracies in the indictment, specifically with regard to when and where the eight were first detained, and note that the pretrial testimony of several of the accused is virtually identical in style and content.

Some witnesses for the prosecution fully or partially retracted their initial testimony in court on the grounds they were not permitted to read through their purported statements before signing them, or that they signed only under duress, or that the statements read out in court did not accurately reflect what they said.

The eight young men accused are: Miskhozhev, Akhmed Balkarov, Islam Shogenov, Ruslan Kipshiyev, Kantemir Zholdashev, Artur Karov, Zaur Tekuzhev, and Ruslan Zhugov. Also charged were Zalimkhan Tkhamokov, who died before the start of the trial in August 2016, and Ibragim Gugov, who was reportedly killed resisting arrest. All lived in the same district of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, but not all of them knew all the others, even by sight.

According to the prosecution, following the killing in June 2013 of a group of Islamic militants, Tkhamokov tasked his friend Miskhozhev with recruiting a new group of fighters under the aegis of the so-called and now-defunct Caucasus Emirate proclaimed in 2007 by insurgency leader Doku Umarov. Miskhozhev duly complied and was elected the group's commander. Their objective was allegedly similar to that imputed to the young fighters who attacked police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005: to seize control of the Nalchik city hall in August 2014 and proclaim an Islamic caliphate.

The men are also accused of plotting to kill a police officer by blowing up his car. The most bizarre charge, and the only one to which they pleaded guilty, is of disinterring Aleksandr Popov -- a Russian convert to Islam and one of the fighters killed in June 2013, whose family had had him buried in a Russian Orthodox cemetery -- and reburying him according to Muslim rites.

Defense lawyers for the accused take issue with the prosecution's claim that the eight are adherents of the radical Salafi Islam favored by the Caucasus Emirate. They concede that some, including Miskhozhev, were indeed practicing Muslims, but say they espouse the strain of Sunni Islam widely practiced in the northwest Caucasus. (Testifying in Shogenov's defense, one of his childhood friends made the point that Shogenov opted for a civil wedding at which alcohol was consumed, rather than a religious ceremony, which would not have been the case if he were indeed a radical Islamist.)

Miskhozhev, one of the first to be arrested (in January 2014 together with Balkarov while on their way to Friday Prayers), has pointed out that initially he was only charged with the alleged failed attempt to kill a police officer and setting up an illegal armed group. The charge of plotting to seize the Nalchik city hall, he continued, was brought only after the subsequent arrests of Kipshiyev and Karov, and on the basis of their pretrial testimony. (Like Miskhozhev, both say they were tortured to induce them to "confess.")

Miskhozhev's formal denial that he recruited a militant group was substantiated in court by a witness with ties to one of the fighters killed in 2013.

Their lawyers further argued that the charge of possession of marijuana brought against all the accused is incompatible with the claim that they espouse Salafism, given that Salafi Muslims regard the use of narcotics as anathema. Their lawyers also ask why, after Miskhozhev and Balkarov were allegedly found to be in possession of hand grenades, other weapons, and marijuana at the time of their arrest, other members of the purported militant group were rash enough to venture out into the streets with such incriminating objects on their persons, which were allegedly found when they were detained and searched and adduced as evidence against them.

As for the imputed plan by Miskhozhev, Balkarov, and Shogenov to kill police Colonel Artur Tembotov by attaching an improvised explosive device (IED) to the underside of his car, the accused and their lawyers point out that video footage of Tembotov driving up to a Nalchik police precinct where the IED was allegedly removed and rendered harmless has been edited and does not show those crucial episodes. They also argue that a device of the dimensions specified by the prosecution could not have been securely attached to the underside of the vehicle with the type of magnets allegedly used for that purpose.

Shogenov, who was said to have tailed Tembotov's Ford for weeks before the IED was discovered on December 26, 2013, has never learned to drive a car, and has an alibi: he was in college daily in December 2013 studying for an IT exam. Miskhozhev, too, has an alibi for December 26: he was engaged in construction work on an apartment building.

The prosecution has nonetheless demanded a 20-year sentence for Miskhozhev, 19 years for Balkarov, and 15 years for Shogenov.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba continues to stonewall the opposition. (file photo)

The March parliamentary elections in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia have not assuaged the profound mistrust and antagonism between the various opposition forces and the leadership of the de facto president, Raul Khajimba.

On the contrary, the signing last week by the interior ministries of Abkhazia and Russia of an agreement to establish on Abkhaz territory an "Information-Coordination Center" to facilitate the struggle against organized crime has triggered a new standoff between the two camps.

On the eve of the signing ceremony, 15 of the 35 recently elected parliament deputies addressed a formal appeal to Khajimba and to Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Aslan Kobakhia to postpone it in order to amend the draft. Specifically, they called for the inclusion of a clause stipulating that the parliament should have access to all information concerning the center's activities, and that the director of the center should report annually to parliament on its work.

The opposition Kyarazaa party and the extraparliamentary Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia issued separate statements the same day highlighting the perceived dangers posed to Abkhaz national interests by the terms of the agreement. Kyarazaa pointed out that the center will be a supranational entity with more extensive powers than either the Abkhaz Interior Ministry or Prosecutor-General's Office, which impinges on the constitutional rights of the region's citizens of which Khajimba as president is the guarantor.

Amtsakhara for its part, while stressing that it supports in principle the idea of cooperation between the two ministries, explained in considerable detail how specific clauses of the draft agreement were mutually contradictory; duplicated already existing bilateral agreements, such as that between the Russian and Abkhaz prosecutors-general; or violated Abkhaz law.

For example, Article 10 of the agreement says Russia and Abkhazia will jointly fund the center, while Article 24 says it will be financed by the Russian Federation.

The party questions the logic and legality of the clause stipulating that the center must submit annually to the Abkhaz Finance Ministry and Russia's North Caucasus Ministry an account of its expenditures. It also argues that the stipulation that the center may not engage in any commercial activity is at odds with its stated exemption from taxes.

Moreover, the agreement says that the center's Russian personnel and their families will enjoy diplomatic immunity. Such immunity is, however, guaranteed under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which the Republic of Abkhazia -- which is not recognized as a state by the UN, and by only a handful of countries worldwide -- is not a party to.

Amtsakhara, which for the past 2 1/2 years has sought without success to force Khajimba to step down, concluded by laying on him in advance the blame for any deterioration of the political situation resulting from the signing of the agreement.

Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) responded with a counterstatement stressing that the primary function of the center will be the exchange of information and the maintenance of a special data bank on organized crime. The FNEA categorically rejected all criticisms of the draft agreement as unwarranted and "not conducive to stability and the strengthening of law and order."

Kobakhia and Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov duly signed the agreement as planned in Sochi on May 18. At a subsequent press conference, Kobakhia said that the initial draft of the agreement had been amended to take into account Abkhaz concerns. He added that the center's first head will be named by Abkhazia, and also that one of its primary functions will be to combat drug trafficking. (Over the past several years the opposition has repeatedly criticized the Abkhaz leadership for its imputed failure to prevent the spread of drug addiction among a younger generation with minimal prospects of either long-term employment or travel abroad.)

Those assurances cut little ice with the opposition, however. The website quoted independent lawmaker Raul Lolua, the first and arguably the most competent of the four men to serve as interior minister since Khajimba's advent to power three years ago and one of the 15 signatories to the appeal to Khajimba and Kobakhia to delay the signing of the agreement, told journalists on May 22 that the planned strength of the center (a total of 20 staff, 10 from Abkhazia and 10 from the Russian Federation) is inadequate to perform the functions it is supposed to perform. That means, Lolua reasoned, that either the authorities did not divulge the center's real purpose, or the officials who drafted the agreement were incompetent.

Despite widespread frustration and resentment at the authorities' perceived shortsightedness (and pig-headedness) in signing an agreement potentially damaging to national interests, the opposition does not plan to take to the streets in protest, according to Kyarazaa Chairman Dmitry Dbar, who like Lolua signed the appeal by the 15 lawmakers. Instead, Dbar said, his party will propose "appropriate amendments."

Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia, too, said that "at this stage" his party was not discussing street protests. That reluctance suggests that Amtsakhara may have realized the futility of public protests as a tactic, given its limited public support and the inevitability that Khajimba would simply convene a counterdemonstration by his supporters, as he did when Amtsakhara called for his resignation in December 2016.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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