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Islamists On Trial In North Caucasus

Controversy surrounds trials of Muslim Radicals accused of plotting to overthrow the authorities.
By Fatima Chekunova

Another suspected Islamic militant was convicted last week in connection with an alleged plot to take power in two North Caucasian republics, amid mounting claims that the charges have little or no foundation.


Rustam Tlisov, a 27-year-old native of Karachai-Cherkessia was sentenced to 15 years hard labour at a Pyatigorsk court on October 18. Tlisov was amongst a group captured on the Russian-Georgian border carrying militant Islamic literature.


According to the court press secretary, Tatyana Kostyleva, Tlisov was found guilty of being part of "illegal armed formations" that had fought in Chechnya, plotting the overthrow of the authorities in Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, two autonomous republics neighbouring Chechnya, and organising three simultaneous car bombings in the towns of Mineralniye Vody, Stavropol and Adyge-Khabl on March 26, in which two policemen were killed.


Nineteen other suspected members of the extreme Islamist group Jamaat have already been convicted of the charges in Pyatigorsk and Cherkessk courts. Ten others are awaiting trial on the same counts.


Sixteen members of the group were sentenced to between six and 15 years in June, but their lawyers declared that they would appeal because they said the trials had been unfairly held behind closed doors.


Ilyas Gelagayev, one of the lawyers, said the judicial authorities were trying to cover up the fact that the testimonies of many of the defendants had been extracted using illegal methods. He did not elaborate.


Andrei Shakhnazarov, the lawyer representing one of the accused men in Cherkessk, has gone even further, accusing investigators of systematic corruption.


Last January, Shakhnazarov told both the local and national press and also the counter-intelligence service, the FSB, that a number of investigators and officials from the Prosecutor General's office in the North Caucasus had been demanding bribes.


The lawyer, who represented eight of the defendants, said he was asked for different sums of money for services ranging from organising meetings with the accused, release on bail or even to drop the charges. Shakhnazarov said he had handed over about 20,000 US dollars over a period of six months.


"I am sure that all this has been going on behind the back of [Igor] Tkachev [the special investigator," Shakhnazarov said. "But the extortion scheme was simple - during the investigation they arrested all those remotely under suspicion and then, when there were demands for their release, they took money to let them go."


To further complicate matters, top officials give different messages about the extent of the threat of Islamic extremism in the region. Almost no evidence has emerged about the alleged coup attempt being planned by the men, leading to suspicions that this part of the charges lacks any foundation.


Karachai-Cherkessia's interior minister Alexei Lapin said that he had information about 174 local men who were exponents of "extremism and terrorism" and 93 who had trained in militant camps in Chechnya and Dagestan.


Lapin's deputy, Ansar Tebuyev said, "Somewhere between 500 and several thousand men ought to be under surveillance, but the interior ministry of Russia has not yet given Karachai-Cherkessia a single individual to do that work. As a result, our men are under great strain."


The president of Karachai-Cherkessia, Vladimir Semyonov, insists that the problem is being exaggerated.


"When I heard how the whole country is being told about an attempted coup d'etat in Karachai-Cherkessia, I don't know whether to laugh or cry," Semyonov told Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper in September. "What coup, what nursery of Wahhabism? We were among the first in Russia to ban religious and political extremism. I can't say that we have absolutely no Wahhabis, but the population has a single view on this, they reject it."


The official Islamic clerics in the republic have also strongly disassociated themselves from the extremist suspects. "Our Spiritual Board declares - there are no religious terrorists in Karachai-Cherkessia, but there are ordinary criminals, who try on their own account and without the least foundation to present their crimes as religious acts."


Fatima Chekunova is a journalist with Vozrozhdenie Respubliki newspaper in Cherkessk


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