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Russia: Nalchik Raids Trigger New Wave Of Harassment Against Muslims

Last month`s armed raid on Nalchik has left the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkariya in a state of shock. Although the Chechen separatist leadership and a local militant group known as Yarmuk have both claimed responsibility for the attack, it is now known that nearly all of the 95 militants that were killed during the violence were young Muslim dissidents who had never taken up arms before.

What prompted those untrained, ill-equipped teenagers to defy death and attack Nalchik`s police buildings remains unclear. Residents blame the brutal antireligious campaign of late President Valerii Kokov for the recent raid. Kabardino-Balkariya`s newly elected leader has vowed to fight non-official Islam with other methods. But it seems that the cycle of violence is continuing.

Prague, 4 November 2005 -- Following the 13-14 October raids on Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkariya`s newly elected leader Arsen Kanokov indicated that he was willing to amend the heavy-handed policy of his predecessor.

Ailing Soviet-era president Valerii Kokov stepped down in September after 15 years of repressive rule. He died a week ago, leaving the small Northern Caucasus republic in a state of alarming instability.

In comments to Russia`s "Kommersant" newspaper on the day that followed the Nalchik bloodshed, Kanokov implicitly blamed Kokov for ruthlessly banning all forms of religious life that did not fit into the framework of the government-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims.

In particular, Kanokov criticized the closure of nearly all of the republic`s mosques, saying it only contributed to driving young Muslims underground. Most of the mosques were closed in the last two years.

In subsequent remarks to Russian media, Kanokov has announced a string of measures he said would help keep religious life under control. He has mentioned a possible reshuffle among the leadership of the Spiritual Board of Muslims and starting religious courses in schools.

Addressing Nalchik university students on 3 November, Kanokov called for restraint in the struggle against non-official Islam.

"We must make a clear distinction between believers and those who take radical steps. We must separate the terrorist from the believer," Kanokov said. "I`ve repeatedly told Interior Minister [Khashim Shogenov] and Prosecutor-General [Yuri Ketov] that if we continue taking such tough measures we will end up turning even those people who just want to pray and worship against us."

Kabardino-Balkariya`s residents have greeted Kanokov`s statements with optimism. Yet, whether the new president will be able to stop the republic`s cycle of violence remains uncertain.

In the days that immediately followed the Nalchik raids, Russian state-controlled media reported that security forces were combing the republic in search of militants suspected of links with the attackers.

Rights Violations

Larisa Dorogova, an independent lawyer who has been defending the rights of Kabardino-Balkariya`s young Muslim dissidents for many years, told RFE/RL that the arrests are continuing unabated.

"It continues. People are being arrested every day. In some cases, the detainees are beaten up. Some of them died in custody and their bodies have been put into wagons, where there are bodies [of the militants killed on October 13-14]. According to our, unofficial, estimates, nearly 2,000 people have gone through these mop-up operations. Some are being released after being beaten up. But they are being replaced by others in a kind of rotation," Dorogova said.

Kabardino-Balkariya`s government officials were not immediately available for comment as 4 November was a national holiday in Russia.

Dorogova said she has been able to identify "several" detainees who reportedly died in custody. She did not elaborate further.

She also said that, as in the past, the arrests are primarily targeting those young Muslims who are opposed to the Spiritual Board of Muslims.

"They are forcibly hauled away from their homes. They are being tortured. Some of them are in hospital in a very serious condition, but there have been cases when people left the [Interior Ministry`s Anti-Religious Extremism] Department on stretchers and hospitals refused to admit them for treatment," Dorogova said. "But these people [Muslim dissidents] are not complaining. They`re not turning to private doctors for help, they`re simply staying home."

Ismail Boziyev is a representative of Kabardino-Balkariya`s Balkar ethnic minority and a parliamentarian from Khasanya, a Balkar village located on the edge of Nalchik.


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