Vienna, April 2 – Muslim activists in the Russian Federation are reaching three conclusions from the decision of a Stavropol court to sentence an ethnic Russian imam to the time he has already served in preliminary detention and to free him on one year’s probation after his conviction on what human rights groups say were trumped up charges.
First, the case which over the past year attracted widespread attention not only of Russia’s Muslims but also of Western human rights organizations and governments underscores for many Muslims the unfortunate reality that many Russian officials are openly anti-Islamic whatever senior officials in Moscow say.
Second, the way the Russian authorities conducted this case demonstrated to the satisfaction of most Muslims that the Russian government is prepared in the name of fighting terrorism to employ various illegal and unconstitutional means against Muslims, even if the latter are law-abiding and loyal to citizens. .
And third -- and this may prove the most significant lesson of all -- the Stepanenko case highlights the increasing ability of Russia’s Muslims to reach out to non-Muslim human rights organizations and governments and to force what they are view as superficially powerful but ultimately brittle and weak regime to back down.
On Friday, one Russian news agency (RIA-Novosti) reported that a court in Pyatigorsk had “convicted” imam Abdalla (Anton) Stepanenko of “inciting ethnic and religious hatred,” “promoting Wahhabism” and urging his “followers to wage a holy war.”
But even Russian news outlets had to acknowledge that the outcome of the case was more complicated than that: On Saturday, ITAR-TASS noted that the court had dropped one charge and reduced another, while limiting Stepanenko’s punishment to time served and one year’s probation.
Not surprisingly, Russia’s Muslim leaders viewed that as a victory. Geidar Dzhemal, the head of the Islamic Committee of Russia, told the religious rights website Portal-Credo that the court’s sentence in fact demonstrated that Stepanenko was in fact innocent.
The case against him “collapsed,” Dzhemal said but added that a Russian court could hardly be expected to acknowledge this given how implicated it was in illegal and unconstitutional actions. Consequently, the nominal verdict means that Stepanenko is “innocent” (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=authority&id=722).
Other Muslim and human rights groups are certain to second Dzhemal’s conclusion, especially since this case and the misbehaviour of Russian officials have attracted so much attention over the past 14 months.
In brief, the facts of the case are these: Stepanenko, who was born in the Russian far eastern city of Khabarovsk in 1980, became a Muslim at the age of 17 after his mother married a Muslim. Seven years later he became the imam of a mosque in Pyatigorsk, where he distinguished himself by his orderly behavior and loyalty to the Russian authorities (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/tema/freedom/).
Despite that, however, on January 26, 2006, Stepanenko was arrested on the basis of charges made by Boris Martynov, a youth undergoing psychiatric care, that the ethnic Russian imam had illegally detained him and extorted money from him and two of his acquaintances.
Following his arrest, Stepanenko was charged further with disseminating “extremist” Wahhabi literature. He was subjected to beatings and other mistreatment in the holding cells, as were Martynov and two others who were prepared to testify against him.
When Stepanenko was finally tried -- after 14 months under detention -- the three testified that the city prosecutor Dmitriy Deriglazov had over seen the case, that their testimony against Stepanenko had been coerced, and that he was not guilty of any of the crimes with which he was charged.
Even before that, Muslim activists, human rights groups and Western governments protested to Moscow over what was going on. Most notably perhaps, some 3,000 Muslims signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin that was published in “Izvestiya” on March 5 demanding that the charges against Stepanenko be dropped.
That letter may have led to the outcome in Pyatigorsk, especially since right after its appearance the Russian foreign minister reiterated his and Putin’s view that Moscow cannot afford to get into a serious conflict with the Islamic world given its national interests and the growing number of Muslims in the Russian population.
Clearly, many in Moscow hope that the end of the Stepanenko case is the end of this issue, but as several Muslims in Russia have already pointed out, the Russian imam is “far from the only prisoner of conscience” among the Muslim community of Russia, and this victory “must not be the last.”
Given the lessons that many Muslims in Russia appear to have learned, that commitment seems certain to put new pressure on a Russian government that all too often in recent years has ignored the rights of its citizens in the name of national security and Putin’s vaunted “power vertical.”