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Creating a State of Mass Terror in the North Caucasus

On 23 December 2014, the longest criminal trial with the largest number of defendants in contemporary Russian history came to an end when a guilty verdict was pronounced in the case of the “Nalchik 58”. In this highly politicised case, lasting over nine years, justice was not simply misplaced but missing throughout.


"North Caucasus". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“North Caucasus”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

On 13 October 2005, groups of armed men attacked government installations in and around the city of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) in the North Caucasus. Targets included buildings belonging to the Federal Security Service (“the FSB”), the special police unit (OMON), three police stations and Nalchik airport. Gunfights between soldiers and attackers went on until the next day. Around 35 law enforcement agents and soldiers, 14 civilians and 92 attackers were killed, with over 100 people injured. It is estimated that more than 200 people were involved.

Neighbouring Georgia and boasting Europe and Russia’s highest mountain Mount Elbrus, this North Caucasian federal republic had long been considered more peaceful and stable than nearby Ingushetia and Chechnya in spite of high levels of poverty, unemployment and corruption and a low standard of living. The attacks were nonetheless not completely unforeseen. Increasing repression of practicing Muslims, the closure of places of religious instruction and madrasas (Muslim schools) created increasing resentment between the largely traditional and majority Muslim community and the authorities.

Incidents such as arbitrary arrests and beatings of people attending communal prayers by law enforcement officers, often with impunity, led to a surge in dissatisfaction with the authorities. Human rights abuses common elsewhere in the North Caucasus, such as “disappearances”, torture, arbitrary detention and assassinations were also reported in the KBR. Following the Beslan school hostage crisis in neighbouring North Ossetia in 2004, the local authorities stepped up their search for alleged militants in the KBR. Former KBR president Arsen Kanokov later admitted that the 2005 attacks could have been partially triggered by the increasingly heavy-handed treatment of the Muslim community by the police.

The finger of blame

The Caucasian Front of CRI Armed Forces and the Kabardino Balkaria Jamaat militia, now disbanded, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Yet the sham trial that followed had little to do with establishing guilt or finding justice. In the days following the attacks, a campaign of mass arrests of people suspected to be involved or of having links to militants was carried out. Over 2000 people were detained; most were arrested by armed policemen, others handed themselves in for questioning. Weapons were found in the possession of only four of the defendants against whom charges were later brought.

Rasul Kudaev, beaten and tortured following arrest in October 2005, courtesy of Amnesty International

Rasul Kudaev, beaten and tortured following arrest in October 2005, courtesy of Amnesty International

By November, stories and brutal images started to emerge in social media and the press of the torture of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), one defendant Anzor Sasikov “sustained soft tissue damage and bruises on his face, rib cage, and neck; compound wounds on his head and face; abrasions on the face, left hand, and both feet. The wounds were the result of blows caused by blunt hard objects at close range.” In a letter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2007, Sasikov said they “kicked me, punched me, and beat me with their weapons… I passed out several times”. The outrage created by these images led to admission of the use of torture but no measures were taken against the officers involved. It soon became clear that not everyone who had been arrested was involved in the attacks.

The investigations took two years and by the end of 2007, charges had been brought against 59 individuals. One defendant, Valery Bolov, died of cirrhosis of the liver in early 2008, before the trial. Given the length of the proceedings, only 57 of the “Nalchik 58” lived until sentencing; Murat Kardanov died of tuberculosis in 2010. Another defendant was scheduled for separate proceedings in 2011 and using US-style plea bargaining for the first time ever in this case, another 13 individuals saw the case against them dismissed in return for testifying against other defendants.

Kangaroo court

In 2007, the case was referred to the Supreme Court of the KBR for trial. Nearly all of the defendants were charged under more than ten articles of the Russian Criminal Code, including armed rebellion, terrorism, murder and attempted murder of law enforcement officers. The prosecution stated that part of the purpose of the attack was to effect “violent change to the Russian constitution, violate its territorial integrity” and create a radical Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

According to journalist Maxim Shevchenko, “implicit in this practice of merging all the counts together, to an extent previously unprecedented in the justice system, was that the outcome would be a punitive process, a show trial, and in no possible way a process aimed at establishing the truth.”

The defendants were even denied the right to trial by jury. When jury selection took up most of 2008 without a jury being empanelled, an application was made to restrict jury trials in such cases. This application was initially rejected as being illegal and incompatible with Russian and European law; nonetheless, in 2010, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended to exclude juries in cases of “terrorism, banditry and the attempt on the life of employees of law enforcement agencies.”

According to the Russian human rights NGO Memorial, these statutory changes are directly linked to the Nalchik attacks. In 2009, the case was referred to and heard by a panel of three judges. Some of the defence lawyers filed a complaint as the law cannot have retrospective effect, and the incident and trial had started before the change to the law; this was ignored by the court.

Access to legal representation has also been difficult for the Nalchik 58; lawyers representing them have been harassed. In 2013, one lawyer, Magomed Abubakarov received death threats and threatening text messages and telephone calls. In a separate and uninvestigated incident in 2011, he was almost killed. Defending human rights in a region where human rights violations are rife is a risky business.

Concerning the Nalchik pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) where all 54 defendants are held (the others are under house arrest for health reasons), a 2013 Amnesty International report states there are only five investigation rooms where lawyers can meet their clients confidentially. A special courthouse, built in an American style, has also been constructed for the case to bring the defendants to the court via a special corridor.


The defendants are held in cramped and unhygienic conditions that are barely adequate for short-term detention, let alone more than nine years. They have also been denied access to medical care, including independent doctors to verify claims of torture, and being allowed to receive necessary medication for long-term illnesses.

Given the poor conditions of detention, many of the defendants have developed illnesses not usually found in healthy adults their age. One defence lawyer has claimed that healthy defendants were deliberately placed in cells with prisoners suffering from tuberculosis to infect them. Given the length of detention and the seriousness of some prisoners’ medical situation, by the time the judgment was made, four prisoners had been placed under house arrest to receive medical attention.

In addition, the abuse of the defendants by prison guards was not restricted to their early detention. Solitary confinement, sometimes for days, as a punishment at the whim of guards or for protesting prison conditions has been used against the Nalchik 58. On a number of occasions, some of the defendants have gone on hunger strike to draw awareness to the conditions of their detention. Given their implication in a terrorism trial, this has given some guards an additional excuse to be abusive.

Stalinist system

Since 2009, the trial proceedings have proceeded slowly. According to Maxim Shevchenko, this is simply because “for each of the specific individual counts the authorities had no evidence or hard facts.” In many cases, “evidence” was largely based on confessions signed under torture when the defendants were first detained. For some, such evidence provided the entire case against them. In 2008, HRW reported that at least 12 of the defendants had retracted their confessions and stated they were made to self-incriminate themselves by signing the confessions under duress of torture. The allegations of torture have never been investigated. At trial, most of the defendants denied their guilt.

On the basis of torture evidence and plea bargaining, one defendant Kazbek Butuev was deliberately mistaken for a militant who died in the attacks. Another man claimed a picture of a dead militant looked like him; when Butuev was found alive, qualifying sufficiently as a “militant” by having a beard and a prayer book in his possession, even though more than 12 witnesses could provide him with an alibi, the man who alleged his resemblance to the dead militant was released without charge in return for testifying against Butuev.

Similarly, a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner from near Nalchik, Rasul Kudaev, suffering from serious illnesses as a result of his experiences in Afghan and US detention, was deliberately mistaken for a leader of the Kabardino Balkaria Jamaat with a similar name. Having survived Guantánamo, he provided an expedient scapegoat for the Russian authorities to provide a tenuous and non-existent link to foreign conflicts and armed groups: “they decided to make a show of the scale of the underground network, its links to Al Qaeda (fortunately there were some former Guantánamo prisoners in the KBR) and, thus, to intimidate and destroy everyone.”

In September 2013, the prosecution pressed for the harshest sentences on all charges, including life sentences against some defendants. The hearing ended in January 2014. Judgment was supposed to be made by the end of June 2014, but shortly before that the judge made an order to extend the pre-trial detention of the defendants for another three months. Another similar order was made at the end of that period in late September with a judgment to be made by 23 December.

In the meantime, the defendants continued to suffer ill-treatment at the SIZO, several were placed in solitary confinement for various periods and at one stage several went on hunger strike in protest at a co-defendant being placed in solitary.


Journalist Orhan Dzhemal, who attended the sentencing, noted the heavy armed police presence in Nalchik on 23 December 2014 on his way to the courthouse. While some of the sentences were lighter than those sought by the prosecution, the 3-judge panel led by Judge Galina Gorislavskaya still found all of the defendants guilty. The length of the sentences and the fact that all the defendants were acquitted of the murder charge in a case pivoting on the deaths of over 100 people – meaning that none of the convicted was responsible for anyone’s death – shows the farcical and sham nature of this politicised case.

Five prisoners, including Rasul Kudaev, were given life sentences and other sentences of 4 to 23 years were given to the others. In addition, the judges decided to allow civil proceedings to be brought against the defendants by the authorities to the amount of more than 22 million Rubles (about €308,000) as well as the recovery of legal fees from the defendants of 150-300 million Rubles per person (€2-4000).

Three of the prisoners were set free at the court having served longer than their final sentence in pre-trial detention, including Kazbek Butuev. Anzor Ashev, who was also released, having served longer than his sentence of 8.5 years, was under 18 when he was arrested. He was not involved directly in the attacks but had offered to join the militants the day before. He had surrendered to the authorities voluntarily.

Those with remaining sentences must serve them in penal colonies. Lawyers for all the “Nalchik 58” will appeal against their convictions, including those who have served their sentences. The defendants thus remain, for now, at the Nalchik SIZO. Those given life sentences have been placed in solitary confinement.

Injustice system

Amnesty International slammed the ruling as exposing “the deplorable state of the Russian criminal justice system and the impunity of law enforcement officials alleged to have committed severe human rights violations”. According to Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director Sergei Nikitin, this is a “textbook case of criminal injustice, where the authorities manifestly refused to investigate allegations of torture, despite overwhelming evidence, and the defendants languished for nine years in pre-trial detention, all in violation of international law. This trial should never have been allowed to continue until the allegations of torture were fully and effectively investigated.”

Oleg Orlov, a board member of Memorial stated, “Sadly, this verdict will not do anything to help pacify the situation in the North Caucasus as a whole, and in Kabardino-Balkaria in particular. The fact is that a guilty verdict was delivered against all the defendants in these proceedings, including people against whom evidence of their guilt collapsed completely during the trial. They are certainly innocent.”

None the wiser

Each year since the attacks, on 13 October, the KBR officially commemorates the law enforcement officers who died. Yet nine years on, lessons have not been learned: armed conflict and corruption and impunity for state officials implicated in human rights abuses against civilians continues. Clashes with the authorities and extrajudicial killings continue. In 2014, at least 40 people are reported to have died in armed conflict in the KBR.

Just months after the 2005 attacks in Nalchik and the ensuing brutality suffered by the defendants to beat confessions out of them, a Council of Europe report on European complicity in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, condemning secret Russian-run torture prisons in Chechnya criticised the Russian authorities’ practices and compared them to those of the US: “it is regrettable and worrisome that the two principal world powers cite the fight against terrorism as a reason to abandon the principle of respect for fundamental rights.”

One of the lawyers defending the Nalchik 58 told Amnesty International France, in an interview in June 2013, that repressive measures by the authorities, rather than foreign Islamic militant influence, were responsible for “radicalisation”. Concerning the security situation, Batyr Akhilgov stated “to put it into relative terms, I would say that the lawlessness prevailing in the North Caucasus is simply greater than that elsewhere in the Russian Federation.”

According to Maxim Shevchenko, the Russian government’s handling of the case produced “the bloody terror of 2006-2012, of decapitated heads and the endless civil war in the KBR, which is still not over. No one was intimidated by the trial – it simply sent out a message that within the state machine, there is little sense in looking for any law, fairness or justice.”


7 comments on “Creating a State of Mass Terror in the North Caucasus

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