Violence, state repression, and human rights abuses have left no corner of the troubled North Caucasus unaffected. On 13 October 2005, groups of armed men carried out a series of coordinated attacks on government and military installations in and around the city of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR). In clashes that lasted until the next day, over 150 people were killed and more than 100 injured.
More than 200 people are thought to have been involved. Two Islamic militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. The heavy-handed and disproportionate response of the Russian authorities, however, has had little to do with bringing those responsible to justice, instead unfurling a show trial worthy of the Stalin era.
Following the attacks, over 2000 people were detained. Only four were found to have weapons in their possession. By the end of 2005, charges had been brought against 59 men; one defendant died before the trial started.
The men had been beaten and tortured. In November 2005, brutal images were leaked to the press, causing outrage. The torture was admitted but never prosecuted. At trial, many defendants retracted their confessions stating they had been forced through torture to incriminate themselves and others in the attacks. Many had credible alibis with numerous witnesses to vouch for their whereabouts on the day.
Charged with offences under the Russian Criminal Code, including murder, terrorism and armed rebellion, the investigations ended in 2007. When the defendants requested jury trials, the court was unable to constitute one successfully for more than a year, and instead applied to have the law changed to restrict jury trials in such cases. Initially rejected as illegal, in 2010, the Russian Criminal Procedure Code was amended to exclude juries in cases such as those involving terrorism, not only denying the defendants this right but also retroactively applying this change to events that had taken place years earlier. A complaint by defence lawyers was rejected by the court.
Justice was absent both inside and outside the court.
Justice was absent both inside and outside the court. Access to lawyers was restricted, and in some cases, lawyers were harassed and even received death threats, a phenomenon that is not uncommon in the North Caucasus.
When the trial did start in 2009, the prosecution looked at the case against each defendant individually, because, as journalist Maxim Shevchenko explained, 'for each of the specific individual counts, the authorities had no evidence or hard facts.' In many cases, 'evidence' was largely or entirely based on confessions signed under torture, many of which were later retracted.
The perfect scapegoat
The Russian authorities were afforded the perfect scapegoat through their implication of a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner, Rasul Kudaev, who lived just outside Nalchik. It offered a pretext to add an international dimension to the regional strife, link the attacks to the war on terror, and thereby justify the disproportionate response.
Although Kudaev was never charged or tried at Guantánamo, having been branded a 'terrorist suspect' by the US, he was rendered a more 'vulnerable target for Russian abuse'. The Russian human rights NGO Memorial labelled Kudaev a political prisoner and stated that the basis for his prosecution is to create 'a foreign connection with the actions of Islamic militants in the North Caucasus.'
The evidence against Kudaev, who had also been tortured by the US in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, hinged on his confession obtained through torture, and that of several co-defendants, some of whom admitted they had never met him. Kudaev later brought a pending complaint against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights in 2006 for torture. The complaint was admitted in part, and additional claims were added in 2011 after Kudaev was severely beaten by prison guards.
Someone is responsible for these deaths. But it is not anyone convicted in the case.
More than nine years later, on 23 December 2014, all 58 defendants in the case were found guilty in what became the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history with the largest number of defendants. Sentences ranging from four years to life in a penal colony were handed down. Appeals have been lodged by lawyers for all the defendants.
The sham nature of the trial and judgment is perhaps best exemplified that in a case hinging on culpability for the deaths of over 150 people, all of the defendants were found guilty but acquitted of the murder charge. Someone is responsible for these deaths. But it is not anyone convicted in the case.
Amnesty International slammed the judgment as a 'textbook case of criminal injustice', which 'exposes the deplorable state of the Russian criminal justice system and the impunity of law enforcement officials alleged to have committed severe human rights violations.' Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to 'conduct effective and impartial investigations into the torture, hold those responsible to account, and immediately withdraw as evidence any coerced statements made by the defendants.'
The repressive approach of the authorities in general and this trial has not improved the security situation for citizens; at least 40 people died in 2014 in armed conflict. Almost a decade since the attacks on Nalchik, the situation in the KBR continues to worsen. Oleg Orlov from Memorial stated: 'This verdict will not do anything to help pacify the situation in the North Caucasus as a whole, and in Kabardino-Balkaria in particular.'
As Maxim Shevchenko says: 'The trial intimidated no one. It only sent out a message that within this state machine, there is little sense in looking for any law, fairness or justice.'