Dagestan’s Tsuntinsky District Targeted By Russian Security Services

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 192

Muslim students praying at a university in Makhachkala, Dagestan (Source: Yury Kozyrev via Russia and India Report)

On October 17, details emerged of a controversial operation by the Russian security services in a remote Dagestani village of Khutrakh. Rights activists who clandestinely traveled to the sealed off area condemned the police operation as a manifestly punitive action. “[I]n Khutrakh we saw frightened, battered, exhausted people,” Dagestani rights activist Svetlana Isaeva told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 17).
The security services carried out the special operation in Khutrakh over September 23-30, but activists from Memorial human rights center and Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights managed to visit the village only on October 8. They documented numerous abuses by law enforcement agents. According to eyewitness accounts, about 30 military trucks and cars with over 100 servicemen arrived in the village at the start of the police operation. The government forces started to comb the village house by house, giving no explanation for their actions, without introducing themselves or showing their IDs. A number of people told the rights activists that the police forcibly extracted cash and other material resources from the villagers, even including such basics as food. The police took away $700 from Patimat Magomedova, all the money the 66-year-old pensioner had. Another pensioner, Sakinat Kurbanova, told the rights activist about her experience: “Masked people broke into my house, smashing furniture. They punched me when I tried to stop them. When I asked them why they were doing it, they said: ‘We have the right to do it every day. We act on behalf of the president’” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 17).
Some houses were searched several times during the weeklong special operation. Men and women were taken for interrogation to a military tent camp that was set up near the village. Most of the detained men reportedly experienced beatings, electric shocks and mock executions. The women were treated more favorably, mostly getting away with verbal insults and intimidation. The detained suspects were released the day of or the day after their arrest. Law enforcement tried to elicit information about the insurgents and any rebel arms caches (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 17).
Khutrakh is part of Dagestan’s Tsuntinsky district in the western part of the republic. The district borders Tsumadinsky district, which was one of the early strongholds of the militants. Georgia lies immediately to the south. The security situation in Tsuntinsky district has been tense for over a year now. One Russian border guard died and two were injured when a military vehicle was bombed in the district on September 17 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 17). Earlier this year, in April, five servicemen and three militants were killed in a fierce clash in the same district (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 11).
The police’s harsh handling of the operation in Tsuntinsky district was likely provoked by the persistently unstable security situation in the district. But there may also have been another rationale behind the Russian security services actions. The Tsuntinsky district, with a population of 18,000 people, is home to the largest part of the Didoi people. In December 2010, Didoi leaders nearly caused a diplomatic scandal between Russia and Georgia when they appealed to Tbilisi to allow them to join Georgia along with their territory, thereby seceding from Russia. Didoi leader Muhamed Gamzatov was murdered shortly afterwards, in February 2011. Officials in Tbilisi and his relatives stated that Gamzatov’s death was suspicious, but no substantial investigation was carried out following his death (www.gazeta.ru, February 7). It is plausible that the Russian government loathed having a disloyal people located right on the border with its enemy Georgia and found it beneficial to move to instill a climate of fear in this area.
Human rights abuses in various parts of Dagestan are reported regularly. On October 13, unidentified armed people in Makhachkala kidnapped 35-year-old Rustam Yahyaev. The following day, his relatives held a protest in Makhachkala demanding his release, but the police did not disclose his whereabouts. On October 17, Yahyaev was released from police custody in the city of Izberbash south of Makhachkala. Upon his release, Yahyaev, a devout Muslim, was reportedly badly beaten up and fined $16 for public drunkenness (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 18).
On October 17, Kurban Gafarov and Garun Kurbanov were kidnapped by unknown armed people in Dagestan’s Kayakentsky district, which is on the rim of the southern region of the republic. Gafarov’s son Ramazan reported the abduction, saying that the kidnappers had forced Gafarov and Kurbanov into their car. Gafarov was known as a devout Muslim and was listed by the police as a follower of Wahhabi ideology. The police had reportedly tried to plant illegal drugs on him, but Gafarov was acquitted on all charges in court (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 17).
On October 11, 43-year-old Salman Abakarov disappeared after attending a funeral in Dagestan’s mountainous Untsukulsky district. Abakarov was reportedly on the police list of Wahhabis. On October 17, Kavkazsky Uzel reported that Abakarov’s burnt-out car had been found in a mountain gorge and relatives feared he had been kidnapped by the security services (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 17).
Despite government promises to stop illegal police practices in Dagestan, the security services do not appear to have significantly changed their brutal tactics. This essentially means that the government is unable or simply unwilling to break the cycle of violence in the republic. It also shows the futility of government steps to reintegrate repentant insurgents rather than carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the political system.