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Fears and Arrests in Karachai-Cherkessia

North Caucasian Muslims complain of harassment by the police.
By Murat Gukemukhov
Amina is two years old. She was born in the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia and is listed by the police there as a person who “for one reason or another has not taken part in jihad”.



Despite her young age, Amina is reckoned to be a potential Islamic extremist because of her father, Ovod Bolayev, a 30-year-old ski instructor and former dancer who heads this list of police suspects. The existence of the list was confirmed to IWPR by a police source although it has not been made public.



The local police have accused Bolayev of being a leader of the “Hobbits”, a slang word used for “Wahhabis”, as Islamic extremists are generally called in the North Caucasus. Bolayev denies this.



Strange as it sounds, his bushy beard is a major cause of his problems. But he refuses to shave it off on principle, saying, “Why should [Russian Orthodox Patriarch] Alexy II be allowed to wear a beard yet I can’t?”



“I am just a Muslim and not an extremist,” Bolayev told IWPR. “I want my country to build mosques, churches and synagogues. If people believe in God, there will be less violence and lying.”



Bolayev said his home is searched two or three times a month and that as a result of these invasions of privacy, his 70-year-old mother suffered a stroke. “They look for weapons and Wahhabi literature,” he said. “I have expensive skiing equipment. They ask where I got the money from. Maybe they think Bin Laden bought me the skis. You find that funny? Well I’m tired of it.”



Karachai-Cherkessia, a small autonomous republic with a population of 430,000, is experiencing unprecedented tension because of the upsurge of violence in its western neighbour Kabardino-Balkaria, where more than 130 people died when militants clashed with police in October. The two regions share close ethnic and geographical ties.



The picturesque town of Karachayevsk, near the Caucasus mountains, is a particular focus for police activity.



Bolayev says the authorities are targeting ordinary Muslims rather than genuine militants.



“Nowadays no one goes to the mosque any more,” he said. “If they do, they get arrested and their houses are searched. But no official charges are laid against anyone for committing a crime – they have no evidence.”



Bolayev talks quietly, the way people here do at funerals, “In their cellars they break the lads with beatings and unimaginable tortures. Every time they release a boy who’s been beaten from police custody, we ask him to act wisely and refrain from retaliating.



“But some people don’t listen and begin to seek revenge. They are mountain people, and the right to vengeance is central to the local understanding of what it is to be a man.”



Five policemen were killed in shooting incidents in Karachayevsk over the summer. Bolayev agrees that some young men in the republic have turned to militant violence, but he insists this has often been after suffering abuse.



Bolayev said he had a friend called Kemal who died in a shootout with police. Six months before his death, Kemal was in police custody. He told Bolayev later that his investigator put a condom on a truncheon and shouted at him, “Take down your trousers!” Kemal snatched a glass from the table next to him, smashed it and cut his wrists to avoid being assaulted.



Rashid Blimgotov, a 30-year-old businessman, recently won municipal elections to be head of his native mountain village of Nizhnaya Teberda. However, he too appears on the police list of militant suspects, and has had his house searched. When he won the election, the republican authorities annulled the result.



Blimgotov says that he went to the republican Department for Fighting Organised Crime, a section of the interior ministry, and demanded that he be arrested if he really was a criminal. He was told that he was not being charged with anything, and was advised not to cause a fuss.



The authorities in Karachai-Cherkessia did not respond to IWPR’s questions about the cases of Bolayev and Blimgotov. However the republic’s leaders argue in public that their tough line against suspected extremists is justified because there is a threat of terrorism, and because residents of Karachai-Cherkessia have committed acts of terror in the past.



At a recent meeting in Karachayevsk, President Mustafa Batdyev answered charges that his security forces were persecuting innocent people by saying, “People from here have carried out terror attacks in Moscow and [the southern Russian city of] Volgodonsk. The root of the evil is here; the guilty ones are here, not in America or England.”



After the October violence in Kabardino-Balkaria, the local security forces here have been put on a state of high alert and around 1,000 special forces officers have arrived from other regions. In November the local police conducted a training exercise on how they would respond to a mass hostage seizure similar to the one in Nalchik when militants took over police headquarters and sealed off the city.



In May, four women and two men, all suspected militants, were killed in a police operation. President Batdyev said they had been planning to seize a school as happened Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004.



Relatives of those killed strongly denied the accusation that they had been extremists. “Around 5,000 people came to the funeral of my daughter,” said Sapar Katchiev, father of 16-year-old Diana Katchieva, one of the six dead. “Terrorists don’t have burials like that. Diana was eight months pregnant, and that doesn’t fit with the charges laid against her.”



Local people complain that the brutal methods used by the police are making things worse rather than better.



An officer in the organised crime department, speaking anonymously, said that for more than a year his unit had been working to quotas of the number of “Hobbits” they were to detain.



“At every meeting they would ask who had caught the most Hobbits,” the officer told IWPR. “Your colleague had got 15 and you had only two. That means you were working badly! You should catch more. Where could we find them? We were forced to inflate the lists. So we monitored young men going to the mosque, and ‘registered’ them and harass them.”



The officer confirmed the existence of lists of police suspects, and said that since the summer of 2005, members of the political opposition to the local government had started appearing on them.



Bolayev said, “When policemen were being killed, a police colonel acquaintance of mind said to me, ‘You enjoy authority with Islamic youth, help us stop the killings.’ I answered that I was ready to go into the mountains right now in search of the killers but I added, ‘I’ll have something to stop them with if you stop torturing people.’ The colonel said he had no power to do that.”



Some officials have expressed concern about the tactics being used. At a meeting between government officials and Muslim leaders in early December, the mufti of the republic told the interior minister that wearing a beard was not necessarily a sign of religious extremism.



At the same meeting, Yevgeny Krotov, presidential adviser on religion, said, “Unjustified persecution of Muslims is causing a rebellious reaction, especially among Islamic youth. Unfortunately, this ultimately leads them to adopt anti-government positions.”



Murat Gukemukhov is a correspondent for REGNUM news agency in Karachai-Cherkessia.

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