Police Portray Civilian Dissenters as Insurgents, Russian Analyst Asserts

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 12

At 3 a.m., on June 9, a car blew up on the road that connects the Dagestani villages of Kupa and Gunib. Two people, identified as Mukhtar Agaev and Shapi Nurmagomedov, died in the explosion. Both were residents of the village of Sagratl in Dagestan’s Gunib district. A spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee in Dagestan, Rasul Temirbekov, said that an improvised explosive device (IED) had detonated inside the car, suggesting that the deceased were carrying an explosive device that accidentally exploded. An anonymous source told the Kavkazsky Uzel website that Agaev was the leader of the Salafist community in Sagratl and that Nurmagomedov’s brother was on the wanted list as a suspected insurgent (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 9).

The well-known Russian journalist Orkhan Jemal conducted his own investigation of the incident and arrived at a surprising conclusion. “I knew one of the slain people very well,” Jemal said. “Mukhtar Agaev was a colonel with the Federal Service for Drug Control, commanding the special unit within that organization.” According to Jemal, Agaev was indeed a Salafist. He was arrested several years ago on suspicion of setting up an illegal armed group and attempting to kill a local deputy. Agaev was held in custody for a year and tortured, but the Dagestani Supreme Court eventually exonerated him, after which he retired from his position and started his own farm. Jemal concluded: “The court acquitted him. But in order to meet the Dagestani ‘death squads’ one does not need to be guilty—it is enough to be suspicious. Agaev prayed not as loyal citizens do, and he had little to like the authorities for—he did not hide it. All of this was sufficient for his co-villagers to find his charred body.” Several other village opposition figures, according to the journalist, were briefly detained, but released afterwards. Instead of responding to an earlier attack on police officers by actual insurgents, the authorities cracked down on the dissenters in the village, Jemal asserted (Kavkazskaya Politika, June 12).

While the standard practice of killing political opponents is not new in Dagestan, the well-known Russian journalist’s personal knowledge of the victims adds weight to multiple claims made by rights activists about widespread abuse of power by the police in the republic. On June 13, a resident of Makhachkala, 28-year-old Ramazan Magomedov, was abducted. Four people dragged the victim out of his car, striking him in the head with the butt of a gun. The attackers put a mask on Magomedov and forced him into their car, according to eyewitnesses. In response to inquiries by relatives of the victim, police denied they had detained him (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 13).

He was “found” at a police station the following day. His lawyer, Murad Mallaev, said: “I came to the Sovietsky district police station twice, yesterday and today, but they were telling me that Magomedov was not there. Only in the evening today, for the third time they allowed me to see my client. Magomedov had apparently been questioned and at the time of his arrest, they planted drugs in his pockets—marijuana.” The lawyer also said that Magomedov had marks of torture on him and that his client confirmed having been tortured (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 14).

Civil peace in Dagestan is further jeopardized as the government methodically eliminates the last vestiges of public trust. In one such episode, seven suspected militants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from about 3 to 15 years. According to investigators, the suspects organized an illegal armed group, Yuzhnaya (Southern), in southern Dagestan’s Derbent area. The group committed over 70 serious crimes, investigators said. Both the prosecution and defendants appealed the court’s decision, as prosecutors considered the sentences too soft, while the defendants said the authorities were too harsh on them. What makes this case especially damaging to the government authorities is that all seven people on trial voluntarily surrendered to the Dagestani government’s commission for the adaptation of former militants, expecting an amnesty, as the government had promised (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 11).

The activities of the commission were curbed soon after Ramazan Abdulatipov was appointed as Dagestan’s governor in January 2013. The elimination of that commission practically removes any incentive for the repentant rebels to surrender and more generally hardens the insurgency’s position.

Without proper civilian oversight, the activities of the Russian security services in the North Caucasus regularly trespass existing laws. It is hardly possible for the government to establish rule of law in the region if the police itself routinely breaks the law. But having simmering instability in Dagestan may actually be quite convenient for Moscow, being its “second best option” after complete control over this territory. As the infighting grinds on in the republic, Moscow may be assured that Dagestanis will not be able to organize to challenge Moscow’s tight rule over the region. Dagestani clans will compete with each other for Moscow’s benevolence; secular Dagestanis will tend to cling to Russia, fearing the rise of Islamism in the republic; and Sufis and Salafists will continue their rivalry. This stable instability may be reassuring, but as in any conflict, it could spin out of control if Moscow’s grip on the region somehow weakens in the future.