Kabardino-Balkaria’s commission on former militants — handcuffed by police ambitions?

10 September 2018
Nalchik Airport (aviateka.su)

The Commission on adaptation of militants coming back from Syria to peaceful life has functioned in Kabardino-Balkaria for over 6 years. Despite its mandate to reintegrate former militants into society, a number of high-profile prosecutions has raised doubts over the authorities’ true commitment to peacefully returning them to civilian life.

Islam Gugov left for Syria in September 2014. He joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a militant group at the time connected to the jihadist underground in the North Caucasus.

Regretting his decision, in the spring of 2015, Gugov crossed the Syrian–Turkish border and through his father, contacted Russian law enforcement structures. They promised that if he returned, he would not be imprisoned, no additional charges would be brought against him, and he would receive help adapting to peaceful life.

Gugov was arrested in Nalchik Airport upon his arrival a year later. His statement admitting his guilt was seized during the arrest and did not appear in his case.

‘Such actions by law enforcement structures, of course, cannot contribute the return of militants to peaceful life and the strengthening of mutual trust between them and the state’, Valery Khatazhukov told OC Media. Khatazhukov heads the Human Rights Centre in Kabardino-Balkaria and is a member of the Commission on Adaptation.

‘They reduce all the Commission’s efforts to naught’, he added.

A militants’ driver

The Commission under the Head of Kabardino-Balkaria on assistance in adaptation to peaceful life to persons who decided to stop terrorist and extremist activities was established in February 2012. It works with law enforcement structures and is supposed to provide legal, psychological, medical, and other assistance to militants who decide to return to civilian life.

Khatazhukov told OC Media that the commission ‘carefully checked for information on Islam Gugov’s participation in military actions in Syria’ and came to the conclusion that Gugov ‘wasn’t directly involved in either fights with the Syrian Arab Republic or in terrorist attacks’. According to him, it was only found that Gugov served as a driver.

This is a claim echoed by Gugov’s first lawyer, Aleksandra Ignatenko, who during the opening of Gugov’s trial said there was no evidence he was involved in preparing or conducting terrorist attacks. The position was shared by Yeva Chaniyeva, a lawyer from Russian rights group Memorial.

After verifying Gugov’s role in Syria, the commission petitioned the court top spare Gugov from jail. The petition was signed by then chairman of the commission, Alik Yemkuzhev.

Two criminal cases against Gugov are currently ongoing and he remains in detention.

The law enforcement ‘agenda’

Khatazhukov, who joined the Adaptation Commission in 2016, told OC Media that before 2016, not many people even knew of its existence.

‘Moreover, some people on the commission didn’t even know themselves that they were members’, Khatazhukov said. ‘We cannot speak of any kind of successful activity from the commission’s members from 2012–2016’.

According to him, the commission only started to really fulfil its functions in the last three years. These changes took place, according to him, thanks to the current chairman, Secretary of the Security Council of Kabardino-Balkaria, Kazbek Tatuyev, as well as local leaders such as Mayor of Baksan, Khachim Mamkhegov, who according to Khatazhukov, ‘are not indifferent to the future of deceived and misguided men’.

When Mamkhegov became Mayor of Baksan, a town in the north of Kabardino-Balkaria, an entire programme on preventing extremism started up in the town.

‘Mamkhegov closely follows the fate of the young residents of Baksan’, Khatazhukov said, ‘[he] constantly keeps in touch on Skype with Gugov and tries to ward off the fatal steps of those currently in Turkey with the intention of joining the ranks of the Islamic state and other radical groups’.

Despite ‘improvements’ in the Commission’s work, Khatazhukov said ‘it’s still too early to say that the process of returning these young people to normal society has become irreversible’.

According to him, there is no coordination between the commission and law enforcement structures because ‘often, members of law enforcement agencies pursue their own agenda, different from the tasks of the commission’. These, according to Khatazhukov, include ‘increasing their clearance rate, obtaining regular and extraordinary promotions — in short, career development’.

One local expert who asked not to be named agreed that the root of the problem was that law enforcement agencies and the Adaptation Commission were at odds. He told OC Media that for law enforcement, ‘it’s not at all necessary to defeat terrorism or return terrorists to society. Such a victory is simply not profitable for them, because after this, financing for the “fight against extremists” would also cease […] as well as the opportunity to receive promotions, jobs, bonuses, state awards, etc.’

‘The activity of the commission on adaptation of militants to peaceful life’, he said ‘objectively prevents law enforcement from receiving these “bonuses”.

‘If there were no terrorists, the heads of local law enforcement agencies would have to invent them, and this is actually what they often do.’ the expert said.

False testimony

In Kabardino-Balkaria, young people are frequently handed down harsh sentences. A striking example of this is the case of Aslan Konov, a resident of the village of Planovsky in the east of the republic.

According to the Adaptation Commission, Konov went to Turkey seeking to join the ranks of Syria’s anti-government groups. However, after contacting the mediators involved in transferring future militants to Syria, Konov abandoned his plans and voluntarily returned home.

Konov went to the district Federal Security Service (FSB) department on his own accord, gave exhaustive testimony to all the questions posed, and was released without charge.

Half a year later, he was detained by police suspected of ‘attempting to commit a crime of a terroristic nature’, and eventually sentenced to 4 years in prison.

The Adaptation Commission also recorded cases in which investigators forced suspects to give false testimony against others suspected of involvement in extremist groups. This, they say, is presented to suspects as the price of of freedom, or if their cases got to trial — for a not guilty verdict.

Islam Gugov made just such a claim. According to him, he was told to give false testimony against Nalchik resident Alim Sultanov, who was accused of being a member of the Islamic State.

Sultanov’s entire case, according to his lawyer Magomed Abubakarov, was based on the distorted testimonies of several witnesses. The lawyer said Sultanov could not have taken part in fighting in Syria because he did not cross the Turkish-Syrian border when he was in Turkey.

Abubakarov claims the case against Sultanov was fabricated with the help of testimonies from others who were under investigation and under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

Of the three witnesses in the case — one, after being released, disappeared and did not give testimony in court. The second testified his real name in court and said he was being pressured to implicate the defendant, whom he said he did not know and had never seen before. The testimony of the third witness, according to Abubakarov, was ‘contradictory and devoid of logic’. Sultanov’s alibi, he added, was not even checked.

Sultanov was sentenced to 17 years in prison for ‘participating in an illegal armed formation’.

‘Unhindered propaganda’

In the beginning of August, Khatazhukov appealed Gugov’s case during a videoconference organised by the North Caucasus District Military Court.

‘It is a pity’, the human rights activist said, ‘that the case of Islam Gugov did not become a precedent. The success of his appeal to the commission would have been very important in promoting the return to peaceful life. The current situation, where because of Gugov’s refusal to testify against someone else he was hit with new charges, does huge damage to the very idea of prevention’.

Not everyone agrees that the prosecution of former militants is standing in the way of the fight against extremism. Aslan Beshto, head of Kabardino-Balkaria–based Circassian community group the Kabardian Congress told OC Media he does not see any contradictions in the work of law enforcement agencies and the Adaptation Commission.

The goal of both law enforcement and the commission, according to him, is to defeat terrorism; the difference being the approaches used to achieve this. He says that while law enforcement agencies try to catch, imprison, or kill extremists, the commission acts by persuasion and strives guarantee the normal treatment of those who return voluntarily.

‘Neither law enforcement agencies nor members of the commission understand the reason young people become militants is that the propagandists of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups conduct their work almost unhindered. They have almost no risk, although some prosecutions of Russian citizens for posts made in social networks do take place. At the same time, skilful counter-propaganda through the media is absent’, Beshto said.

He said the personal will of the leadership was an additional factor in the success of the commission’s work — and not only in Kabardino-Balkaria.

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