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Observant Muslims Feel Targeted in Caucasus Republic

In a Russian region where religion and terrorism have become linked, blacklists and raids by security officers are raising hackles.

April 16, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

KARACHAYEVSK, Russia — Imam Albert Bogatyrev called for a simpler Islam, recognizing that his followers seemed to have at least two things in common, the same things he wrestles with himself: poverty and anger.

Most religious leaders here tell followers to slaughter a cow after a loved one has died, and to distribute the meat to friends, neighbors -- and imams.

Bogatyrev wondered how families living on $30 a month could afford to give away their meat. Stop, he said; Islam doesn't require it.

No more large tombstones. No need to spend money on elaborate wedding festivities. And if you're feeling angry, don't seek revenge. Read the Koran, go to the mosque, pray. Calm yourself, if you can.

Most saw Bogatyrev, whose teachings bucked traditional practices here in the Northern Caucasus, as a quirky but innocent cleric. "God's fool," some called him. The authorities saw him as something more dangerous. In January, police invaded his home and arrested him, claiming to have found an automatic rifle and two hand grenades in his mother's bedroom.

Bogatyrev and his followers say the imam's real crime was not the weapons, which they insist were planted by authorities, but his calls for Islamic revival in a region where religion and terrorism have become intertwined. The police methods, some fear, might only further radicalize this area.

Dozens of mosque-goers have been subject to arrests, beatings and repeated searches in the strikingly beautiful Russian republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where this town of 21,000 lies in a remote bowl of snowy peaks.

Lists of Muslims suspected of militant tendencies have been compiled by the authorities. Citizens here say they contain the names of almost everyone in the republic who has a beard or goes regularly to a mosque. Being named on the list, they say, means constant visits from the police, and trouble with everything from negotiating security checkpoints to buying home insurance.

The authorities say they are trying to check the spread of Islamist violence that in the last two years has seeped out of nearby Chechnya and into neighboring republics. In Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, battles between militants and the police have become a deadly background noise that shows no signs of abating.

Here in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, known primarily for its Switzerland-like ski resort and world-class mountain climbing, those conflicts had seemed a world away. Then, last year, six law enforcement officers were shot and killed by unidentified "extremists." In May, security forces laid siege to an alleged hide-out of militants supposedly planning a terrorist attack on a school. Four men and two women were killed, including a 16-year-old girl who was eight months pregnant.

The increasing rhythm of tit-for-tat violence is similar to what has been unfolding with much more severity in other regions of the North Caucasus, and raises the same chicken-or-egg questions that have dogged police crackdowns in those areas.

Bogatyrev fears his followers may be driven to violence not by any militant plan to destabilize the region, as officials suggest, but by a simple, direct anger -- aimed at police who have in some cases become tormenters.

"I'm very afraid of a second Chechnya breaking out here," the imam said in a recent interview after being released from the psychiatric facility where authorities held him for two months.

"If they keep beating us, there are people who might not be able to put up with it forever, and they might go up into the mountains and take revenge," he said. "Then, in the eyes of the entire world, we too will be in the wrong. As if we were the ones who started it."

Police say the searches and detentions are designed to prevent acts of terrorism.

"The heads of the police departments visit the mosques according to a particular schedule. They have targets they need to meet. They talk to the imams, and they try to prevent the recruitment of young people who visit them into illegal armed groups," said Fatima Kandarova, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry in Cherkessk, the republic's capital.

In Karachayevsk, city prosecutor Askhat Teunayev said, "A majority of police personnel here are also Muslims, and it is difficult for me to imagine a person of the same faith taking issue with someone just for praying.

"There is nothing illegal about attending a mosque."

In a small, makeshift mosque in the town of Ust-Dzhiguta, two dozen men sat in glum silence, then one by one offered up stories about what it meant to be on the "Wahhabi list," a reference to a fundamentalist form of Islam.

"They don't even pretend to hide it when I ask, 'Why have I been summoned?' 'Because you're on the list.' Nobody knows who compiled these lists, or how, or why," Kemal Salpagarov said. His brother, Khyzyr, who founded the mosque, was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of extremism, weapons possession and trying to overthrow the government.

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