A dangerous refuge
It is probably odd to start an article with a story about another, unwritten one, but the circumstances that led to this are too important to ignore. In 2013 I was trying to write a piece about North Korean refugees seeking political asylum in Moscow. For various reasons, it has still not been written, but while sifting through the stories of those lucky people who managed to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for the less than obvious but evidently much more attractive prospect of life in Russia, I discovered an interesting fact. While setting up a meeting with a recent arrival from the DPRK through Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of ‘Civil Assistance’, an NGO that supports refugees, I asked her about finding an interpreter, as our man didn’t have good enough Russian or English. ‘You need to look for either a South Korean or a European’, she warned me. ‘Whatever you do, don’t hire a North Korean – refugees will refuse to talk to you. They might well be from the DPRK security services, and might kidnap the refugee and return him to North Korea. And then there can be only one outcome – the death penalty.’ According to Gannushkina, this had happened more than once: a refugee arrives in Russia and meets people from back home who turn out to be from the DPRK secret police, and that’s the end of him.
‘Don’t use a North Korean interpreter – they might be from the DPRK security services.’
In the end the interview fell through, although I had found an interpreter. The refugee got cold feet, Svetlana didn’t want to pressure him, and the news moved on. But what with the previous year’s British ‘spy rock’ affair, the idea that operatives from other countries’ secret services were at loose and active in Moscow, and Russia in general, was too interesting to ignore.
Tajikistan and back
It may sound odd, but in Russia this kind of thing is considered normal – at least unofficially. Most often it’s the security services of former Soviet states, and in particular those in Central Asia – Uzbekistan, say, or Tajikistan – that exercise informal surveillance over their citizens resident in Russia. As security expert Andrei Soldatov writes on his site Agentura.ru, ‘The FSB has a different attitude to the security services of those Asian neighbours we think of as our friends: it closes its eyes to what they get up to on Russian soil, although of course they have no right whatsoever to conduct operations here. On the contrary, as members of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, an association of former Soviet Republics], these countries have an obligation not to carry out intelligence activities against one another. Yet people regularly disappear from Russia in mysterious circumstances and later turn up in prisons in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.’
People regularly disappear from Russia in mysterious circumstances.
In January 2012, Tajik oppositionist and journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev was stabbed in a central Moscow restaurant. On the previous day a stranger had phoned him, asking for a meeting there. As he waited, a man came towards him, smiling, and thinking that this was an old acquaintance Atovulloyev relaxed and as a result received several stab wounds. He survived, and his assailant was quickly arrested, but the reasons for the attack remain unclear, especially as the man was subsequently released from custody. The incident didn’t seem connected in any way to Atovulloyev’s life in Moscow: the journalist had fled from civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 and stayed away because his highly critical articles about the administration of President Emomali Rakhmon had led to a number of legal proceedings against him.
Another case dates back to 2005, when Tajik opposition politician Mahmadruzi Iskandarov was arrested in Moscow at the request of his country’s police authorities. Back home, the former government minister and head of Tojikgaz [Tajikistan’s state owned gas distributor] who then became a key opposition figure, was accused of terrorism, corruption and other criminal activities. He was initially released from custody after only a short time and immediately applied to the Russian government for political asylum, which meant his extradition order was suspended while his application was considered – all in accordance with the law. However, a month later Iskandarov disappeared, and when he reappeared it was in a Tajik prison (he is now serving a 23-year prison sentence). His associates believe he was kidnapped by the Tajik special services with the collusion of their Russian colleagues, a conclusion supported by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 after he filed a suit against the Russian government.
The Uzbek opposition
The most common reason for Uzbek citizens to be abducted in Russia and forcibly returned to their homeland is their alleged links with the Islamist organisation Hisb ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia and criminalised in Uzbekistan, with adherents receiving fairly severe sentences. At present Svetlana Gannushkina is looking into the recent case of Mirsobir Khamidkariev, a well-known film producer and businessman who disappeared this summer (and was later, of course, found to be in an Uzbek prison). He is accused of helping set up banned religious extremist organisations, but human rights groups claim the real reason behind the case is his antagonism to the Uzbek government. For example, after his business interests were taken from him, he went on to produce a film, Temptation that was strongly critical of his country’s ruling elite.
Kidnapped film producer Mirsobir Khamidkariev in prison. image via FerganaNews
Khamidkariev, a well-known film producer, disappeared this summer (and was later, of course, found to be in an Uzbek prison).
In August 2013 Khamidkariev was almost deported from Russia: he was arrested by the police in Moscow at the request of the Uzbek government, but soon released on the orders of the public prosecutor’s office. He immediately asked Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) for political asylum, which was initially refused. On 21 May 2014 Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky District Court ordered the FMS to grant his request; however, he was abducted soon after. ‘This is a hideous violation of the law’, says Gannushkina, ‘and on top of it the FMS appealed against the court’s decision and the higher court revoked his refugee status.’
Cases like this, she adds, are common. Refugees from countries with totalitarian regimes, such as the DPRK, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, frequently disappear in Russia and their disappearance does not provoke any investigation or even response from the Russian law enforcement authorities.
Russians are not safe either
This made it all the more surprising to find a case where the kidnappers’ victim was a Russian citizen. Islamic rights activist Ali Charinsky told me about the abduction from Moscow of a young man from Dagestan [a Russian region in the North Caucasus], Magomed Aliyev. Aliyev’s family, he said, had told him that the young man had been kidnapped by unknown people describing themselves as FSB officers. For several days nothing more was heard, and then he turned up in a hospital in Stavropol – a completely different part of the country. The young man was in a coma – evidently before arriving at the hospital he had spent some time in the town’s pre-trial detention centre, where someone had stabbed him in the eye with a ballpoint pen, and deeply enough to cause brain damage. Only then did the details of his disappearance start to emerge.
Magomed Aliyev in hospital after his 'self-inflicted' injury. Image via the Aliyev family.
It turned out that Aliyev had for some time already been under surveillance by the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service. This body monitors financial flows of all kinds, including those that might be used to fund terrorism. His name was on its list as an Islamist extremist, and he was arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting terrorist activity. Charinsky, however, claims there is no evidence to support this charge, while the police are silent on the subject and the FSB insists it knows nothing about any crimes relating to terrorism. Meanwhile the Prison Service is claiming that Aliyev’s injury was self-inflicted –an exotic and painful means of attempting suicide. It even claims to have caught his action on CCTV, but is not offering to show the recording.
Abductions are nothing new in the North Caucasus, where one over-religious young Muslim fails to come home just about every day.
Abductions like this one, says Ali Charinsky, are nothing new in the North Caucasus, where one over-religious young Muslim or another fails to come home just about every day and is then tracked down to a remand centre, accused of belonging to an armed insurgent group. Which makes Aliyev’s story all the more unusual: he lived quietly in Moscow with his parents and sister, and then in the space of 24 hours was found in a different part of Russia without a lawyer and then in a coma. Charinsky believes he was stabbed with the pen during an interrogation to force information out of him, but for the moment it’s just the rights’ activist’s word against that of the police.
Lawyers from Russia’s Committee against Torture, one of the country’s most respected NGOs, for its work in monitoring the legality of police and special services’ activities, are now investigating Aliyev’s case. And if these services were really involved in the abduction of this Russian citizen, it is not difficult to guess whose methods they are copying.