Must not Keep Silent

Germany has officially refused to extradite a Chechen citizen Salam Vitaev to Russia.
Vitaev has applied for refugee status and said that he was being illegally prosecuted at home. Meanwhile, Russia is still searching for the man through the Interpol system.

He is accused of joining the ISIS terrorist organization, creation and financing of illegal armed groups, and recruitment of militants. In Chechnya, a criminal case was launched against him, under several ‘serious’ articles of the Russian Criminal Code. Salam insists that he has never warred in Syria, has never recruited or financed any terrorists. He says that his ‘accomplices’, including Akhmed Altamirov, extradited to Russia by Bosnia and Herzegovina, were ‘attributed’ to him with no proof whatsoever, and those who gave evidence against him, were threatened and tortured. Many cases and prison sentences emerge this way in modern Chechnya.

Now that the extradition threat is over, Vitaev has told us about some details of the case, and explained why one must not remain silent about being illegally prosecuted by the authorities.

— What’s your status now in Germany?

— I’m an applicant for political asylum. I came to Germany in 2015, and in 2016 I was arrested by Russia’s request. And when I was released, I was denied asylum by the migration agency. I appealed the decision and I’m now waiting for a response from the officials.

— Even if your name is deleted from the Interpol database, it’s still dangerous for you to go to Chechnya.

— Sure thing! No way I can go there; I know that while the Russian regime is there, I can’t even think of that. Neither should I think of hiring an attorney and trying to obtain justice upon my case. It won’t make it any safer for me. Those who used lawyers and tried to prove that their cases were fabricated, couldn’t even get an official ‘not guilty’ verdict. On Chechnya’s local TV, the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs tells about the ministerial directive: if a guy on the street even ‘looks like’ a Wahhabi, they must plant drugs or a gun on him, or anything else, they must kill or jail him. 
As for me, I am still referred to the extradited Altamirov’s case as an accomplice. There are many ‘random’ people among my alleged accomplices and those I assertedly recruited. They say that Altamirov and I were brothers in arms in Syria. Although, the investigators allege that he went to Syria in 2013, and I arrived there in 2015. And still, they say, we managed to meet; this is how nimble we are. But in 2015 I was in Europe already.

— There’s information that before 2014 Sochi Olympics special services virtually made radical Caucasian Muslims go to the Syrian war. They didn’t prevent it, and sometimes even were said to assist them in order to avoid terrorist attacks on the eve of a huge sports event.

— I’m quite sure that this is true! There was a real torrent of people leaving the country. Our republic is small (I lived in Sernovodskoye village, Sunzhensky district), and every week I heard: ‘this one has left, and that one, too’. Quite often they didn’t go alone, they moved out in groups of two or three people. And then repression and raids began. That was in 2014. Not just those who left were targeted, but their friends, pen pals, and social media contacts as well. It seems fair to say that they started harassing everyone in sight.

— Did people literally say “let’s go to Syria” to each other during the departure period?

— Sometimes you talk to someone, have tea with them, and see nothing strange about that person, and in a couple of days they just disappear, not sharing plans with anyone. And then there were cases of ‘mother raids’. Women come and ask you: ‘How come you sent my son to the war and you yourself are sitting here?’. If anyone leaves, the rumor is instantly spread all over the village. They get to the place and tell their relatives: don’t wait for me, I’m gone forever. And the relatives are obliged to inform the local police office. If they try to hide the information, they’ll get into trouble. They will anyway, but if they keep it a secret, they’ll get twice as many problems.

The investigators know that I haven’t been to Syria. The local police know that, too. But still, they would summon my mother to interrogation once a week and tell her: “your son’s shaitan, you should’ve seen after him; we’ll kill him, we’ll jail him”. And in case a son has really been to Syria or committed an offence against the current government, then his family are persecuted in a far harder way. There have been cases when even the sisters of the accused were beaten, say nothing of their brothers. Beating brothers, fathers, and other men in the family is a routine practice.

This is the way the security agents try to make those who have left return to Russia. They simultaneously fabricate cases and ‘beat’ testimony out of the freshly arrested. A few investigators and police officers were promoted for advancements in my case. For them to arrest and jail shaitans is first of all a ‘check in the box’.

— What do you fear most right now?

— I’m afraid that they will somehow find a way to take me to Russia. Security agents use violent and intricate measures. They beat you and torture you with electric shock. And if you manage to endure, they may use methods that humiliate a man. They threaten to rape your sister or wife. This is over the top, the utmost meanness. If they take me back, Allah forbid, you’ll see me admitting every single offence on the Chechen state TV (ЧГТРК), admitting how bad I was, how I deceived everyone, how I am sorry and grateful to Kadyrov. And my relatives will be very ‘ashamed’ for me, and my neighbors will be describing me as a very bad person.

— Who are your ‘accomplices’?

— There was a guy from our village, we used to go to the same elementary school; he was caught in Malaysia, deported to his homeland and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. Another one is really in Syria now; he was also ‘assigned’ to me. There’s the third one, he is living in Turkey. He is really a close friend of mine. He was also included into the case. And there are people in my case that I don’t know at all. But when you google their names, you see that one went to Syria with his wife, and another one had moved there at the beginning of the war, in 2013, and died long ago. There’s a neighbor who lived on my street, we’ve been friends since childhood. He’s also part of the case.

— Were the witnesses tortured to make them give evidence against you ?

— Yes, they were. There was another law enforcement raid in 2016 in Chechnya. Witnesses tell how it was going on. They put a person into the police department, beat him and electrocute him. They want him to give names. Whose names would you give? Those who share any extremist ideology, obviously. Otherwise they won’t release you. And you give the names. Then they bring in the next person and ‘talk to’ them the same way. So, that day they took twenty people, one by one. Including my nephew, my pen friend, and a couple of guys from the village. When I was released here, I was told they had also been included in my case. Then they were tried in the Achkhoy-Martan Court. And they said I had promised them financial support, urged them to go to Syria and commit a sabotage there.

As a result, my nephew and my neighbor were sentenced to three and a half years of imprisonment. Not so much for Chechnya. For such a ‘relaxation’ they demanded their families to pay a bribe of several hundreds of thousands rubles.

— Are you keeping in touch with your fellow villagers ?

— No, because there’s a chance that everyone I write to may be held liable for my case. One of my friends was literally told: ‘you have been arrested for contacting Vitaev’. To this day, mothers of those guys think I’m guilty for what happened to them.

I called the investigator working my case. He didn’t explain anything to me, and just told me to come to him and bring my passport.

— Wasn’t he surprised that you reached out ?

— He told me: ‘We’ve been expecting you at home!’. I replied that in Germany it is not that easy to catch someone, you can’t just call them a shaitan and put them on the wanted list. You need evidence of guilt. The investigator was being arrogant. And later, when my family were summoned once again, they were threatened that I was going to be jailed for life when I came back.

— What was people’s motivation to go to the war in Syria in 2013 ?

— To my mind, the motivation was daily social media videos of killing people in Syria, of killing women and children, of ‘asadists’ (Syrian soldiers and supporters of president Asad) raping Muslim women. Besides, there were pretty many people sharing excessively radical ideas. That caused resentment and anger as a response to injustice. There’s no shortage of the injustice in our homeland, though. And the guys went to protect Syrian people. And eventually, there was a huge mess, a lot of various groups emerged, some of them fighting each other. It was hard to understand who to fight for.

— Why should have they not done that, in your opinion ?

— You mean, why they should haven’t gone there? I would never go there. I had plans for life, I wanted to live and not to die, I had been married for half a year by that moment. I was the youngest and most beloved son in the family; I was the hope of my parents. Unfortunately, my father passed away about a year ago. I mean, the moment when I had to move to Germany, was the moment when my parents most needed me alive. I had to take care about them. Of course, I wasn’t too rich. But I had a home and a family. That was a very bad time to die. And in 2015 Syria was such a mess, everyone was killing everyone.

And besides, if I didn’t care about my life, I would have turned against my main enemies – Kadyrov and his brigade, and soldiers in the Chechen Republic. I could have died in action much closer to my home. Crimes of the Russian government were much more distinct to me, than crimes of Asad. I’m sure that dying in a fight against a Kadyrov’s soldier deserves respect.

— What’s the role of VAYFOND in your case? How did you know about it  

— I went to Berlin to a human rights protection event. I met some VAYFOND representatives there. At that moment I had no legal support and clung to everyone who could help me. I wrote to and called everyone. VAYFOND made a video featuring me, and started following my case.

Then I managed to find a lawyer working with the Interpol. Step by step, they took me under their wing. In addition to legal support, they offered me financial backing to pay for my attorney. And, most importantly, they provided me with moral support, the feeling that there were people who would never leave me alone.

— Why must you not keep silent when you’re illegally persecuted by the government and law enforcement bodies
?
— The first case against me was about accusing me for being a terrorist. And I kept silent. No interviews, TV shows, nothing. Then they filed a new case. When I was watching bloger Tumso Abdurakhmanov’s YouTube channel, I left a comment and asked him what I had to do. He had more experience in legal matters than me. We got in touch, and he asked me about the case details. He inspired me to publicize it. He said that my case was a shame of the investigators. First I refused, because I was worried for my mom. She was constantly summoned to the police office and every single time it was a stressful situation for me. Those who interrogated her had no respect for women or elderly people. They pressed her, shouted and insulted her.
Tumso explained that publicity was required. That I had to declare I was innocent, but refrain from criticizing the government, and stick to the illegal persecution only. 
And I released a video. I didn’t insult Kadyrov or his minions. I just shortly put the matter.

— What changed in your case
?
— Of course, they didn’t stop persecuting me, and the investigators did their best to make the extradition that Germany has just denied happen.
And up to the recent denial by the German government they did hope they could make it.

Now Salam’s attorneys are working on his recognition as a refugee and being given political asylum. They are also determined to completely delete all data on Salam from the Interpol’s wanted list.

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