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Civil Rights Suffer as Fear, Anger Grow in Russia

After several bombings and a school hostage crisis, police in Moscow have arrested 11,000 -- most of them from the North Caucasus.

September 23, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Magomed Tolboyev is a retired Russian air force colonel and a decorated test pilot who flew under the cosmonaut program. He is a recipient of his nation's highest honor, the Hero of Russia award.

But on Sept. 8, none of that could compensate for his dark hair and a passport that shows he was born in Dagestan, one of the turbulent republics of the North Caucasus. Police at a downtown subway station demanded Tolboyev's documents, as they do of many Caucasian-looking people these days in the wake of attacks linked to Chechen and other Caucasian insurgents. The officers then grabbed him by his shirt and choked him until he almost passed out.

"As an officer, I was deeply insulted," Tolboyev said Wednesday. "I told them their age is small enough to be one of my children. And that they should salute a colonel when they talk to one, and not stand there nibbling sunflower seeds.... But I knew these cops could bundle me into their car, take me away and simply kill me."

Tolboyev got an apology from Moscow's police chief. But thousands of other people haven't been as fortunate. In recent days, more than 11,000 people -- many of them Caucasians -- have been rounded up by police on charges of living in the capital without legal registration.

Nearly 900 had been deported by midweek, and reviews of other cases were pending. City officials acknowledge that it often can be difficult for Caucasians to obtain the proper documents, which require exhausting paperwork and a large bribe. But public objections to the arrests have been nearly absent.

"I can say that Russia is really standing on its ears right now. Everybody's worried. Everybody's in shock," said Vsevolod Krasnikov, a 19-year-old student in Moscow. "First of all, we need to establish real law and order in Chechnya, because most of the terrorists come from Chechnya. And then we should lock the borders and check out everybody who tries to come here."

"Russia is for Russians, and Moscow is for Muscovites," fellow student Denis Bely said.

In a survey last month -- before a bombing at a Moscow subway, the near-simultaneous crashes of two jetliners and a mass hostage-taking at a school blamed on Chechen insurgents -- 46% of Russians in 128 cities favored limits on where natives of the Caucasus can reside. Some Moscow legislators now want to prohibit Caucasians from even entering Russia's capital during periods of insurgent violence.

"The Constitution defines 31 rights and freedoms, and I think the most important right and freedom is the right to life," said Moscow city legislator Yury Popov, who proposed the temporary ban. "While I see that realistically we can't ensure for all Muscovites this particular right, I think we have a moral obligation to temporarily restrict some other less important rights ... to ensure this most important right, to life."

For years, visitors from Chechnya and the surrounding republics have been subject to special scrutiny by Moscow police. But in the last two weeks, since the school siege in Beslan in the Caucasian republic of North Ossetia, police have stepped up their inquiries.

Some said they try to stop nearly everyone of Caucasian appearance -- meaning dark-haired and dark-skinned.

"I look for faces of people from the Caucasus. Dagestanis, Chechens, people like that. First of all, I stop him and check his ID. If his ID looks basically OK on the spot, I still take him [to the subway police office] for further questioning," said Danila Kuliyev, a junior police sergeant in north Moscow whose father is from the Caucasus.

Kuliyev said it would be a "good idea" to evict Caucasians from Moscow -- though he didn't mention his own family. "If you take them away from the markets and everywhere, it will make the work of the police easier and much more reliable," he said.

About 5 a.m. Tuesday, police barged into a hotel room where Zalina Dzandarova and her two children, all of whom had been held hostage in the school at Beslan, were sleeping. The family was in Moscow to visit Dzandarova's sister-in-law, who was hospitalized with serious injuries suffered in the attack.

"I said, 'Are you looking for terrorists? If you are, you came to the wrong place. Don't you know we are from Beslan, that we are victims of terrorists?' " Dzandarova said.

"I'm sorry," one officer replied. "We have our instructions." Then they proceeded to search the family's bags and peer under the beds.

In addition to intense police scrutiny, Caucasians apparently are also being targeted by thugs. On Saturday, about 30 young men entered a subway car and attacked three Caucasians, beating them severely.

"They were picking out the dark-skinned people, but when such a big fight started, other people got beaten, too," said Bagrat Pogosian, an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan who suffered a deep knife wound to his shoulder in the attack.

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