Thursday, August 5, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Shortcomings in Russian Legal System Prompt Muslims in St. Petersburg to Set Up an Advisory ‘Shariat Court’

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 5 – Because Russian officials often demand bribes or engage in other illegal actions and because the “least well-defended” sectors of the Muslim population thus are not able to get justice, a Muslim lawyer in St. Petersburg has established a shariat court that will issue advisory opinions rather than enforceable verdicts for those who turn to it.
But because of the emotionally charged nature of the term, “shariat court,” and because of the past actions of the Islamic Human Rights Center in the Northern Capital with which it will be associated, the official Muslim hierarchy has distanced itself from this undertaking and Russian officials have launched an investigation.
Earlier this week, Dzhamaliddin Makhmutov, head of the Islamic Human Rights Center, announced the creation of this advisory shariat court to help resolve “moral and ethical questions” for those who voluntarily turn to it. But the city’s mufti has denounced the court’s organizers as “charlatans” and the ombudsman there is looking into what is going on.
Makhmudov told “Komsersant S-Peterburg” that there was a great need for such an institution because “there are very many Muslims in the city, and often they do not want to turn to government courts with their problems.” Instead, they would prefer to deal with people “they trust” (
And he explained that the new “court” which will be staffed by Muslim legal specialists, many of whom have received training in Saudi Arabia, will resemble in some respects “the comrade courts of honor” that existed in Soviet times more than the shariat courts in the Middle East which have outraged many because of their harsh sentences.
He added that in the first few days of the court’s operation, it had already attracted more than 40 Muslims from St. Petersburg who hope to have this Islamic institution help resolve their legal problems and thus spare them the difficulties of dealing with the Russian legal or administrative system.
Leaders of the official Muslim establishment reacted quickly and negatively. The city’s first deputy mufti, Ravil Pancheyev, said that the local Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) “does not recognize this Al-Fatkh” which is behind the court because “it was set up by charlatans.”
And he added that Makhmutov “does not have any authorization to set up a shariat court since he does not have the requisite education and religious experience.” Makhmutov responded that Pancheyev’s reaction simply reflected the fact that the Islamic Center represents competition to the official establishment.
(Pancheyev’s comments may not carry much weight with Muslims in Russia’s Northwest because his behavior in St. Petersburg has offended many of the faithful. For a discussion of that, see among many other articles in recent years
A second Muslim leader, Munir-Khazrat Beyusov, of the MSD of European Russia for Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, said simply “a shariat court cannot exist under conditions of a secular state.” Moreover, if Muslims want advice, they can always turn to their imams; they don’t need this new institution (
And a third, Shamil Mugattarov, the chairman of the Coordinating Council of the Muslims of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, said that he had doubts about Makhmutov but would have “understood” if the latter had “organized a legal consultation center for Muslims and called it that” (
But when someone “begins talking about a shariat court, then this generates many questions.” What can this institution be? And even more important, there is the enormous danger that it will “provoke a strong negative reaction” from non-Muslim Petersburgers against the one million Muslims now living in that city.
Russian officials have their own reasons for not approving this development. Al-Fatkha, although legal, became an object of attention when three of its followers were charged, but then cleared, of attempting to assassinate the city’s leader and when a search of its premises last year found “extremist literature and narcotics.”
Aleksey Kozyrev, human rights plenipotentiary there, told the media that he “would not want to live in a city where there was a shariat court,” adding that he assumed that his interlocutors would feel the same way. Consequently, he is looking into the matter to determine with this is “an adventure or an affair or a provocation.”

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