Rights Activists: Religious Repression Feeds Dagestan’s Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 48

At a human rights conference held in Moscow on December 10—which was International Human Rights day, marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Day—Lev Ponomaryev, the veteran activist who leads the For Human Rights movement, called for holding public hearings on the situation in Dagestan in the near future. Ponomaryev invited Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, as well as representatives of the Public Chamber, the Kremlin-created consultative body, to attend such hearings.

Also at the conference was Svetlana Isayeva, co-chairwoman of the Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights group. According to Kavkazky Uzel, Isayeva said that a “civil war” is taking place in the republic.  “People are losing their lives every day,” she said. “[Dagestan’s president] Mukhu Aliyev has taken an incomprehensible position, saying that crime in the republic is not high, that the figures show this,” she said. “He says that 40 law-enforcers were killed this year. Is that really a small number of victims? The 40 people who died were only among the police; that doesn’t count the [civilian] people killed during special operations.”

A resident of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala, Irina Aleksandrovskaya, told the December 10 conference in Moscow that she and her family had come under pressure from the authorities after she converted to Islam. “I am Russian, I have two children, also Russian, we recently converted to Islam,” Kavkazky Uzel quoted her as saying. “It was a completely conscious decision; no one pushed me into it. My acquaintances reacted differently to it—some with respect, some with understanding, some without understanding. But what amazed me was the attitude of the law-enforcement bodies. Our family was immediately made note of. The district police inspector started coming to us regularly, wanting to know who was behind my decision, what organizations, who pushed me into it. When I got tired of all of this, I said that I have the right to freedom of religion. After that, they organized a storming of my apartment.”

Aleksandrovskaya continued: “People in masks burst in without showing any documents, put my son and me on the floor and began to look for literature of ‘a certain orientation’. They searched for a long time and, not finding anything, they couldn’t come up with anything better than planting a grenade that did not have a pin or a fuse in my underwear drawer.” Following that incident, Aleksandrovskaya said, her son was arrested for illegal possession of a grenade. She said: “The judge called me in and said: ‘I understand you; I respect a person who at the age of 40 takes the decision to accept a faith, but I can’t do anything. If I acquit your son, the law-enforcement bodies will have to launch a criminal case against the police officer who planted the grenade.”

According to Aleksandrovskaya, her son was given a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence. “My husband was several times called down to the UBOP [regional anti-organized crime department] and they tried to influence him, claimed that I have Wahhabi tendencies and that he should divorce me,” she said. “He said he would not disown his wife only because she adopted Islam. After that, my husband, an officer with the State Narcotics Control Committee, lost his right to carry arms and was passed over for promotion in rank.”

She concluded: “Dagestan is a Muslim republic. And it is necessary to have understanding that people adopt and profess Islam, [and] revere its traditions. I and my daughter wear hijab, we go to the mosque, we observe fasting. The only thing we haven’t done so far is perform the hajj, but I hope that this will happen in the future. Islam is above all a moral religion, and I don’t know why the law-enforcement bodies are so up in arms against us.”

Irina Aleksandrovskaya’s son Igor Tonkonogov told Kavkazky Uzel that he had been called in for questioning at the headquarters of Dagestan’s UBOP on December 9 but that his interrogators had been vague about what they wanted from him. “During the interview they showed me photographs of people I don’t know and asked where I was and what I saw, and whether I was somehow connected with these people,” he told the website. “I answered that I knew nothing. The problems began when we adopted Islam: we then immediately became suspect.”

Kavkazky Uzel reported that it was told by an UBOP spokesman that Tonkonogov had not been questioned on December 9. The spokesman refused to comment on the statement made by Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov on November 20 that his ministry had registered 1,370 “Wahhabis” (North Caucasus Weekly, November 26). On the other hand, an unidentified official in the Makhachkala police department (GUVD) told the website: “And why shouldn’t we have lists of them, when they have lists of us? Because the members of the gang formations have lists of law-enforcement personnel.” The official refused to say who is on the lists kept by the law-enforcement agencies, but asked whether members of the republic’s jamaats are on them, he replied, “The most active, yes.”

Kavkazky Uzel quoted a Makhachkala resident, Salim-Girei Guseinov, as saying that a minimum of 15 percent of Dagestan’s population are adherents of radical Islam. As the website noted, that figure, if true, is ten times higher than the 1,370 people that Dagestani Interior Minister Magomedtagirov says have been registered as “Wahhabis.”

Meanwhile, human rights activists say that repressive actions by the local authorities in Dagestan are having the effect of making the republic’s armed Islamist underground more active. Kavkazky Uzel on November 26 quoted Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Memorial human rights center, as saying that violations of human rights by law-enforcement personnel during special operations and investigations could end up producing new recruits for the republic’s Islamist insurgency and widening its base of support among Dagestan’s inhabitants.

“Pervasive corruption, the difficult socio-economic situation, crude violations of citizens’ voting rights, police brutality, and one has seen recently open pressure by the authorities on the press,” Orlov said at a press conference at Memorial’s Moscow offices on November 24 on the subject of security and human rights in Dagestan. “This is the background against which the armed opposition in Dagestan continues.”

Orlov cited the case of Nariman Mamedyarov, who, he said, was abducted and tortured by security agents and forced to confess to crimes he did not commit.

Noting that similar processes are taking place in Ingushetia, Orlov said that Dagestan’s insurgents are becoming more active, attacking law-enforcement personnel, civilian officials and clergymen. “Policemen are losing their lives,” he said. “Explosions and armed attacks are taking place in various regions of the republic. The militants are conducting a genuine hunt for the top officers of the law-enforcement agencies. Just since the beginning of September four majors, a lieutenant-colonel and a colonel have been killed in attacks.”

Svetlana Isayeva of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights said during Memorial’s November 24 press conference that in order to end the bloodshed, a “dialogue” should be conducted with members of the armed Islamic underground. “The goal of such a dialogue is to give the militants the opportunity to return to peaceful life.”

According to Kavkazky Uzel, those who spoke at the November 24 press conference in Moscow said that the main conditions for such a dialogue should include the guarantee of an amnesty for those militants who do not have blood on their hands, a guarantee that criminal cases involving those involved in armed attacks will be carried out in strict conformity with the law, that torture and other illegal methods of coercion will not be used on those suspected of having committed crimes, that militants who surrender under an amnesty are given access to lawyers from the moment they put down their arms and that suspects and/or their relatives are allowed to hire lawyers of their own choosing.

“Control over guaranteeing the above-mentioned conditions could be carried out by a special commission made up of representatives of the federal center and local power structures, as well as the clergy and wider public,” said Svetlana Isayeva, stressing that none of this will work without public control over the process of returning the militants to peaceful life.

She also said that restoring peace in the republic will be possible only if religious persecution in the republic ceases. “The persecution of Salafis in Dagestan once again validates the belief of human rights advocates that religion in and of itself must not be considered a sufficient basis for legal prosecution,” Isayeva said.

Another participant in the November 24 press conference, Memorial staffer Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, told Kavkazky Uzel that the armed conflict in Dagestan is religious in nature. Referring specifically to the list of 1,370 “Wahhabis” in the republic, she said: “In and of itself, the Salafi current probably does not represent a particular threat to society:  people live and carry out their rites as they see fit. However, during the past decade in the Republic of Dagestan, the official authorities have essentially equated Salafism with terrorism and banditry.”