Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabardino-Balkaria Crackdown on Islamists

Mosques are closed and worshippers arrested in the North Caucasian republic.
By Valery Khatazhukov

The authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have cracked down on young Muslims in the autonomous republic, following allegations that Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev had spent time in the region fomenting trouble.


But worshippers and ordinary people say the police have behaved brutally, punishing innocent people and alienating the population at large.


Throughout September, the police closed down several mosques in the capital Nalchik and rural areas of the North Caucasian republic, and have arrested dozens of young people on suspicion of being radical Islamists.


According to the official religious institution in the republic, the Muslim Authority, around 100 people were detained, but Eldar Astemirov of the Institute of Islamic Studies puts the figure at more than 150.


On October 3, this reporter met a group of worshippers, who had been released from the local remand prison the day before, at a mosque in Nalchik.


Valery Gutov, 38, assistant to the mosque's imam, or prayer leader, told IWPR: "Armed police came for us after evening prayers on September 14. At the police station, they lined us up facing against a wall and told us to put our hands behind our heads. Then some people wearing masks started beating us with truncheons and the butts of their AK-47s."


"Then they made us sign a piece of paper saying we had resisted arrest. They proceeded to take us, in small groups, to the magistrates' court at Nogmova Street. We were hoping to complain to the judge, but we never got to meet him. They just handed his decision, sentencing each of us to 10 days in jail for resisting the police."


Three of the group, Anatoly Tukov, Anatoly Apikov and Anzor Getajeev, who worked as night watchmen and a carpenter, were fired from their jobs.


Oleg Kardanov, 19, an unemployed man said, "They beat me badly. My kidneys are still hurting. I met this guy from Baksan at the remand prison - they had cut his hair to form a cross on his head. His name is Islam. I couldn't understand why they'd done this. My parents aren't letting me attend the mosque anymore."


About 10 people are still in prison in Nalchik. The rest have been released.


When Kabardino-Balkaria's interior minister, Khachim Shogenov, met the republic's Muslim leaders on October 2, he justified the arrests by referring to a shootout with suspected Islamic militants in the village of Baksan in August.


"We have grounds to believe that some of the detainees could have played a part in the events that happened at Baksan at the end of August," he said, although he failed to provide any more detail about the alleged connection.


The episode occurred on August 24, when police besieged a group of armed people in a private house at Baksan. Following several hours of shooting, one of the people inside the house was killed and four others escaped.


Rumours quickly spread that one of the men in the house had been the famous Chechen warlord Basayev. Many observers dismissed the rumours. Police would neither confirm or deny it and a source at the interior ministry, who asked not to be named, told IWPR, "A certain Tamerlan Shogenov, held on suspicion of terrorist links, has testified that Basaev was in fact in Baksan. We have reason to believe he had spent a month and a half there."


All subsequent attempts to track down the mysterious participants in the Baksan shootout have failed, although the entire republican police force was involved, assisted by a few military units.


Then, at the beginning of September, the authorities shut down several mosques in the Chegem district and the village of Dugulubgei in Baksan district. Some mosques have been ordered not to admit worshippers at any time except Friday prayers.


At an interior ministry briefing on September 5, the head of the unit that combats organised crime, Fuad Shurdumov, said, "Don't get us wrong. We don't want to interfere with the rights of worshippers, but we have grounds to believe some of the people coming to the mosques could be a real threat to the Muslims themselves.


Shurdumov warned of the spread of radical Islam, commonly called Wahhabism, "It's our duty to protect people. Wahhabism has put down deep roots in this republic. It pains me to admit that we have lost the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of our young people."


This was not enough for the mufti of Kabardino-Balkaria, Anas Pshikhachev, who told the Cherkess-language service of Radio Liberty, "We are outraged by the actions of the police who - in a blatant violation of the law - have closed down several mosques. It is not impossible that the police may have something on some of our parishioners - in most cases, former parishioners - but what do the mosques have to do with any of this?"


The crackdown has angered a lot of ordinary people, who say the police have over-reacted.


"My 20-year-old son was detained a week ago," said Aminat Kardanova. "I've heard he's been brutally beaten. He's only a student. He prays and only goes to the mosque occasionally. If he can't practice Islam, what is there for him to do - walk the streets or take drugs?"


Musa Mukozhev, a popular Islamic youth leader in the republic who also serves as an imam, warned that his supporters would not let the matter rest.


"We are going to defend ourselves, but only by any lawful means available to us," he said. "Following medical examinations, all the victims are going to file complaints with the prosecutor's office. I truly hope that the president of our republic, as guarantor of our constitution, will not leave this situation unattended, and will take all the steps necessary to protect us from unchecked police brutality."


Kabardino-Balkaria is a small republic where news travels fast. Most of the closed mosques have now reopened. But the arrests have stirred up public opinion, and the tension has been heightened by a lack of credible information about what actually happened. Meanwhile, the republic's president, Valery Kokov, has said nothing to make the situation clearer.


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Valery Khatazhukov is the executive director of Kabardino-Balkaria's Republican Human Rights Centre in Nalchik.


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