Fabrication of “Islamic extremism” criminal cases

in Russia: campaign continues


Memorial Human Rights Center

Civic Assistance Committee



April 15, 2007



The end of 2006 saw the criminal prosecution campaign against Muslims suspected of “Islamic radicalism” enter a notably more active stage.[1]


Between December 2006 and March 2007, six such criminal cases were launched against more than 20 citizens in the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chuvashia, and the Astrakhan and Chelyabinsk regions.  These are still under investigation.


Since 2004, the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Civic Assistance Committee has monitoring criminal cases linked to “Islamic extremism” in Central Russia, the Volga region, the Urals and Siberia, in which 73 people were convicted, most of them sentenced to prison terms.  Twelve people were convicted between January and March of 2007 in Tatarstan, Tyumen and Orenburg.  Currently, the courts of Tatarstan and Orenburg are hearing two more criminal cases involving 18 suspects.


The ban on “terrorist organizations” and its consequences


Most of these criminal cases are directly linked to the closed-hearing decision reached by Russia’s Supreme Court on February 14, 2003 that banned 15 Russian organizations it identified as terrorist (two more organization were added to the list in 2006).  This ban includes both notorious terrorist organizations as well as those with no links to terrorism, the most widespread of these being the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir.


An official publication of the banned party list only appeared in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta government newspaper in July 2006.  The Supreme Court decision itself never has been made public.


Respected Russian legal experts believe that it was adopted in serious violation of existing legal regulations, and that its implementation has led to the illegal infringement of fundamental public freedoms that are guaranteed by Russia’s Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.


In several cases, the Supreme Court decision uses vague phrases of a general nature as grounds for charging groups with terrorism – such as “militant Islamic propaganda,”  “intolerance for other religions,” “active recruitment of supporters,” and others.


Sixty people have been convicted of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia so far – 44 of them sentenced to actual prison terms of up to 8.5 years.


The convicts’ activities – which consist of propagating the utopian ideas of creating a global Islamic state, or Caliphate; the study and dissemination of corresponding literature; and organizational activity linked to their cause – were not only qualified under chapter 282-2 of Russia’s Criminal Code (participation in an extremist organization banned by a decision of the court), but also equated to commitment of grave and especially grave crimes – involvement in terrorist activity (ch. 205-1) and the creation of a criminal community (ch. 210).  Punishment for these crimes carries sentences of between eight and 15 years imprisonment.


Such an approach, as well as the use of the wording “keeping of banned literature” (despite the fact that such an notion is absent from Russian law), has been repeatedly criticized by human rights organizations.  Although the idea of creating a pan-Islamic state propagated by Hizb ut-Tahrir is incompatible with democratic ideals, in our opinion it may not be grounds for criminal prosecution of its followers.


In July 2006, the wording of chapter 205-1 of the Criminal Code was altered, allowing chapters 205-1 and 210 to be excluded from the case against Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Several of the previous sentences were also reexamined.


Still, in December 2006, nine people who were found holding the organization’s literature during police searches, were accused of “aiding terrorist activity” (ch. 205-1, according to the new edition) as well as of plotting the violent seizure of power (ch. 278).  The latter chapter carries prison sentences of 12 to 20 years.  In our opinion, these charges are fabrications.


None of these people took part in activities of a terrorist nature.  Neither did they take part in their preparation or aid their commitment in any way.  It is difficult to view these criminal cases as anything other than the prosecution of citizens for their political and religious beliefs.


Previous reviews have mentioned the case of Eduard Khusainov from the city of Nizhnevartovsk, who was accused of following Hizb ut-Tahrir and later convicted – this, only after he had written an open letter to the chairman of the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor General’s office voicing his disagreement with the party’s ban and asking to see the text of the Supreme Court decision so that he could appeal it.  He gave a copy of his letter for review to local and federal government representatives in his city, as well as to a local television reporter.


Russia’s Supreme Court continues to dismiss, under various formulaic pretexts, all attempts to obtain a review of the ban placed on the 15 parties that it recognized as terrorist organization (appeals were also filed by the convicted Azat Khasanov and his attorney).


Nafigul Ashirov, Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Asian Russia chief whose verdict on the Hizb ut-Tahrir brochures failed to agree with the official one, received a warning from the Moscow city prosecutor’s office in February 2006 for “justifying the actions of a terrorist organizations.”


The Memorial International Association received a similar warning after it published Ashirov’s ruling on its Internet site – this was viewed as a violation of the federal law “On countermeasures against terrorist activity.”  The prosecutor’s office demanded that the corresponding page be deleted from the Memorial site.


Both warnings were appealed in court.  The courts dismissed both the first and the appellate court appeals, with preparations now underway to take these cases to the European Court of Human Rights.  March 2007 also saw the denial of Memorial’s motion to restore the appeal period against the Supreme Court decision banning the 15 organizations, a ban that provided legal grounds for the two prosecutor’s office warnings.


Other criminal cases against Muslims: fabrications and torture


Justifications for persecuting Muslims in Russia do not run out with charges of their participation in banned organizations.  Suspicion is sometimes aroused by simple observance of Islamic tradition in clothing and way of life.  Charges of “Wahhabism,” so widespread across the North Caucasus, are starting to appear against Muslims in the Volga region.  Religious and political discussions between Muslims have been viewed in several cases by the state as “subversive activity.”  Citizens who offer humanitarian assistance to convicted believers and their families also encounter repressions.  There are known cases of seized Korans and popular Islamic literature being used as material evidence against suspects.  More often than not, “Islamic extremists” also have purely criminal charges fabricated against them.


Previous reviews have provided the classic Russian example of fabricated “Wahhabism” – the case of Mansur Shangareyev (Astrakhan region), convicted in 2005 and 2006 on two criminal charges for a total of four years imprisonment for “illegal possession” of drugs and grenades that were planted on him during a search, and for “inciting hatred or hostility on religious grounds.”  The second charge was based in part on the fact that he “spoke of the superiority of Islam,” expressed “non-conventional religious beliefs” by refusing to accept last rights, and sowed radical Islamic ideas by inviting “”Hindus (?!) and natives of the Caucasus with unkempt long beards” to a mosque.


December 2006 saw the arrest in Astrakhan of six young men – members of a mosque that, according to city residents, was called “Wahhabite” by local security service officials.  Earlier, that March, ammunition was planted on two of the young men during a search, but the criminal case was halted at the time.  There exist statements in the case about the detained being beaten, and also evidence of threats by security service officials against their relatives should they appeal human rights groups for help.


The case of a natural gas pipeline explosion in Bugulma, for which Fanis Shaikhutdinov and two former Guantanamo base inmates – Timur Ishmuratov and Ravil Gumarov – faced terrorism charges has drawn broad publicity.  A jury trial found them not guilty in September 2005, but the verdict was overturned by Russia’s Supreme Court.  In May 2006, Shaikhutdinov, Ishmuratov and Gumarov were convicted by a new set of juries to prison terms of 11 to 15.5 years.  Among the “evidence” of the suspects’ guilt was the fact that prior to their arrest, they delivered care packages with food to other “Muslim extremists” being held in Bugulma remand prisons.  In November 2006, Russia’s Supreme Court reduced the sentences to eight to 10.5 year prison term after hearing the convicts’ appeals.  During their brief spells of freedom between the first and second hearing, Shaikhutdinov, Ishmuratov and Gumarov told human rights workers and journalists about being tortured during the pretrial investigations.  These facts were noted in the Human Rights Watch report, “Stamp of Guantanamo,” published in March 2007.


In February, 2007, the Supreme Court of Tatarstan opened hearings into the case of the so-called “Islamic Jamaat” – an organization in which 17 people are accused of being member.  They are charged with creating an illegal armed “Wahhabite” formation whose goal was to carry out a series of terrorist attacks against Tatarstan’s largest industrial sites during celebrations marking the 1,000-year anniversary of Kazan.  We hold statements made by the accused and their relatives reporting wide scale use of torture in obtaining confessions for the fantastical charges drawn up by prosecutors.


The use of torture also appears in investigations of Hizb ut-Tahrir cases.  Thus, five of the six suspects in a 2007 case heard in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny (Tatarstan reported being tortured during the investigation.


One of the key witnesses in this case, Bakhodir Shukurov, who had been also previously accused of “Islamic extremism,” was subjected to torture for two months while being held as a witness to the case.  Because of this, he filed a statement to the prosecutor’s office asking that his testimony incriminating the accused not be used, even if his testimony was delivered in the presence of an attorney.  After being released and learning that the prison administration failed to deliver his request to the prosecutor’s office, Shukurov made it available to a human rights organization.  Shortly before this case went to court, Shukurov was again arrested and soon convicted on new charges.  Based on evidence of other inmates, he was subjected to injections after which he returned to his cell in an inadequate state.  Eventually he was placed in a holding cell for people suffering from mental illnesses.  In the end, he was not included among the witnesses due to appear in court for the case.  There is reason to believe that authorities thus tried to prevent Shukurov from testifying in court about the inadmissibility of the evidence collected against the accused.


Eduard Gabdrakhmanov, who in May 2005 testified in defense of Hizb ut-Tahrir case suspects appearing before the Supreme Court of Tatarstan while also helping their families, was then arrested under suspicion of plotting a terrorist act because explosive devices had been found in his car.  The criminal case against Gabdrakhmanov was dropped in December 2005, when he won rehabilitation.  It was thus practically confirmed that the explosive devices had been planted.  He was arrested again in August 2006 for allegedly disseminating Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets in the city of Orenburg.  According to his wife, Gabdrakhmanov never visited Orenburg at the time and the organization’s literature had in fact been planted in his apartment during a search.  The case of Gabdrakhmanov’s participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir is presently awaiting hearing in court.


Some reports bare witness to attempts by authorities to put pressure on suspects who are trying to defend their rights amid the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign.  Thus people who have filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are subjected to pressure from the administrations of penitentiary institutions – their detention regime is being made more strict, they are being placed in punishment cells for extended periods of time under false accusations, and in some cases kept from observing their religious beliefs.  There have been statements made by the accused about them being beaten while transferred to prisons in which they are to serve their sentences, about them being denied requests for medical assistance, and also about cases of inmates transferred to special colonies for those who suffer from infectious diseases without sufficient medical proof.


In several regions, judges hearing “Islamic extremism” cases try to illegally bar observers from attending the hearings.  There has been one instances of a judge ruling that a case had to be closed to the public under the pretext that the hearing hall was not equipped to handle people.  Moreover, after this ruling was overturned by an appeals court, the judge still tried to bar a representative of a civic organization from appearing in court, citing the same reason.


Attempts to ban the books of Said Nursi


Concerns grow from Russian security authorities’ efforts to expand the list of banned Islamic currents of thought and organizations.  For more than half a year, one Moscow district court has been holing closed hearings on a case filed by the prosecutor’s office of Tatarstan demanding the writings of the Turkish Muslim thinker Said Nursi be recognized as extremist.  The Russian Prosecutor General’s office supported this motion.  Conclusions from experts submitted by the prosecution present several far-fetched arguments, to the point of drawing tendentious interpretations of metaphysical images.  For example, they see militant Islamic ideas being propagated by the words “an army of various types of animals and plants.”  In appointing a new expertise hearing to the case, the court denied an attempt by defense attorneys to name an Islamic studies scientist into the experts’ panel.


At the same time, pressure is being applied to the followers of Said Nursi.  Thus, they have been repeatedly called in for questioning in the republic of Tatarstan, and through the use of threats forced to undergo psychological tests that concluded that the leader’s books had a “zombifying” effect.  According to the “Nurists,” the prosecutors explained their objectives thus: “These books must be banned, and they should all be sent off to prisons and psychiatric wards.”  If Nursi’s books are banned, their publishers, distributors, propagandists and even readers in Russia will face the threat of persecution.


Extradition and deportation of “Islamic extremists”


Cooperation between Russian and Uzbek special security services, which are redoubling efforts to detain and extradite people who fled Uzbekistan from political and religious persecution, continues to frequently break legal boundaries and contradict Russia’s international obligations on human rights.


The case of Uzbek citizen Rustam Muminov, accused of “Islamic radicalism” by Uzbek authorities, gained notable international attention.  He was freed from detention in the city of Lipetsk in September 2006 following a Russian Prosecutor General’s office decision to deny an Uzbek extradition request.  An attempt to illegally deport him immediate followed, but a court refused to issue a ruling in its favor.  Muminov left for Moscow and appealed for help from the UNHCR and the Civic Assistance Committee.  He was soon arrested in the Civic Assistance Committee office, denied the ability to report his whereabouts both to his attorney and human rights workers, and denied the right to set out the details of his case in court – to which he was taken immediately upon being detained.  There, a favorable court ruling was reached on his exclusion from Russia.  His deportation to Uzbekistan occurred immediately after the European Court of Human Rights applied Article 39 to the case, which obligated Russia to prevent Muminov’s forced return to his home country.  An Uzbek court convicted him on fabricated charges in January 2007, delivering him a 5.5-year prison sentence.


A criminal inquiry was launched into Muminov’s illegal expulsion from Russia, which confirmed that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) both initiated and organized the operation.  This special service spearheaded an operation against Muminov in order to “use a foreigner in the interests of Russia’s FSB.”  It was the FSB that organized and carried out his arrest on suspicion of administrative conduct violations, something that falls outside its jurisdiction.  After having found that Muminov “is not ready to cooperate,” the FSB demanded his emergency expulsion – despite a court ruling for an expulsion not yet having gone into effect.  That ruling was later overturned due to the absence of evidence of a crime.  The role of the Prosecutor General’s office should also be highlighted – by telling its local agency, the Lipetsk region prosecutor’s office, to free Muminov following the extradition denial, it in essence authorized his deportation (copies of several documents from the Muminov appear in the appendix to this review).


International organizations’ severe criticism of Muminov’s illegal expulsion probably assisted in the denials of extradition requests for two other Uzbek citizens who were wanted at home on fabricated Islamic extremism charges, and whose cases were taken up by human rights organizations.


Thirteen ethnic Uzbeks detained in Ivanovo in June 2005 on an Uzbek extradition request for supposed involvement in the Andijan events were released in March 2006 with the expiration of their extended detention terms.  Earlier, the Prosecutor General’s office had approved their extradition despite the UNHCR’s recognition of the “Ivanovo Uzbeks” as mandated refugees, and a third country’s offer to provide them with asylum.  In addition, the Prosecutor General’s resolutions on extradition contained false charges that did not feature in the original Uzbek extradition request.  Russia’s Supreme Court denied an appeal on their extradition, but a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights halted its execution.  Currently, the 13 Uzbek citizens are unable to accept the asylum offer because it requires Russian Foreign Ministry permission for them to leave the country.


Another UNHCR mandated refugee, Bairamal Yusupov, is facing a similar problem. Uzbek authorities are also trying to extradite him for “extremism.”


In both the Yusupov and the Ivanov cases, there are clear differences between those doubtful “crimes” for which the accused are wanted in Uzbekistan, and the actual charges featuring in the extradition requests.  However Russian authorities frequently ignore even blatant signs of falsification in extradition cases.


Between January and March 2007, at least two other Uzbek citizens have been detained in Russia on extradition requests linked to “Islamic extremism.”


There are serious concerns about the increasingly common practice of replacing the legally accepted practice of processing extradition request in such cases, with the quicker and less complicated deportation procedures or administrative expulsions.  These are executed on illegal orders with direct involvement of the FSB.


In March 2006, an FSB representative reported that 19 suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were handed over to Uzbekistan over the first three months of that year.  In November 2006, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, speaking before the State Duma, reported the extradition from the territory of Russia that year of “more than 370 emissaries of the Hizb ut-Tahrir terrorist organization and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan.”  In fact, one here speaks of a mass illegal deportation of people from Central Asia who came to Russia due to political and religious prosecution at home.  Since the start of last year, this practice is gaining threatening proportions.


The illegal actions of Russian special service agents against “Islamic extremism” suspects are not meeting a proper legal response from the Prosecutor General’s office.  There is also no progress in the official investigation into the circumstances of the 2005 forced transfer to Uzbekistan of Alisher Usmanov, an instructor at a Kazan madrasah – despite an Uzbek authorities’ statement  that they received him FSB agents.


Also growing widespread is the practice of annulling Central Asian’s adopted Russian citizenships in order to eliminate legal obstacles to their handover in extradition cases.


One of the documents in the appendix to this report contains a direct request from an Uzbek Interior Ministry official addressed to a regional Russian prosecutor’s office asking for assistance in stripping the Uzbek’s Russian citizenship and deporting the wanted person to Uzbekistan.


Within the context of the above-listed tendencies, concerns are raised by the creation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of a single “list of internationally wanted suspects sought for crimes of terrorist, separatist and extremist nature.”


Over the past half-year, official reports about people detained in Russia and wanted for “Islamic extremism” in Uzbekistan, no longer contain the last names and other personal details of the detainees.  One may not excluded that security authorities are thus trying to bar these people from gaining access to legal help offered by human rights organizations, while also trying to avoid drawing public attention to the cases.


Conclusions and recommendation


Material collected while monitoring fabricated “Islamic terrorism” criminal cases allows us to assert that Russia today, under the pretext of fighting “international terrorism,” is waging a wide scale prosecution campaign against various Muslim groups accompanied by serious violations of fundamental human rights.


The legal basis for this campaign is the unjustifiably broad interpretation of the term “extremism” in Russian law.  The fact that existing anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislation undermines lawfulness and the defense of human rights was noted by an expert commission of distinguished legal experts on terrorism, counter-terrorism and human rights that held open hearings in Moscow in January 2007.


Other serious problems include the wide use of torture, the absence of effective controls over the special services, shortcomings of the court system and expertise institutions, and others.


Denials of asylum requests from CIS state citizens who were forced to leave their homelands due to political and religious prosecution are almost absolute in nature.


Intergovernmental agreements regulating the extradition procedure between CIS states – first of all, the Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters (the so-called Minsk Convention) – do not meet Russia’s international obligations on human rights in a number of aspects.


At the same time, one cannot avoid noting that in cases when in the international community clearly and unequivocally spoke out about Russia’s violations of international legal standards and obligations in extradition cases, positive results were achieved – as, for example, in the above-mentioned case of the “Ivanovo Uzbeks.”


We recommend that European Union member states devote constant attention to the human rights violation committed by Russia in the course of its fight against terrorism, and to direct the attention of the Russian delegation to the need and importance of:


1.  Russia unconditional fulfilling its international obligations in the spheres of human rights, specifically those envisioned by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Pact on Civilian and Political Rights; and others.


2.  Bringing Russia’s anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation in line with its international obligations in the sphere of human rights.


3.  Reexamining the groundless February 14, 2003 Russian Supreme Court decision to ban a number of organizations, which was reached in closed hearings, and as a consequence reviewing the convictions handed down in criminal cases based on that ruling.


4.  Attracting independent experts for analysis of the conformity of Russian court decisions on “Islamic extremism” to Russia’s Constitution and Russia’s international obligations in the sphere of human rights.


5.  Observance of a ban foreseen by international standards, including the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, on the forced return of people seeking asylum to their home countries, especially those that systematically use torture.


6.  Reexamining the practice of a nearly absolute refusal to provide protection to citizens from CIS states that seek asylum on political and religious grounds.


7.  Introducing legislative changes aimed at introducing a legal process for reaching verdicts on extradition cases.


Appendix includes nine pages

[1] We will not be examining the unique situation that has developed in the North Caucasus in this review.