20 February 2021
We demand that the nine individuals be immediately release, all charges against them dropped and their right to rehabilitation be recognized.
Source: Memorial Human Rights Centre
We believe the charges against Shokhista Karimova, Sodik Ortikov, Mukhamadiusup Ermatov, Ibragimzhon Ermatov, Makhamadiusuf Mirzaalimov, Azamzhon Makhmudov, Saifilla Khakimov, Bakhrom Ergashev and Dilmurod Muidinov are not proven. We demand that they be immediately released and that the allegations of torture be investigated.
On 3 April 2017 there was an explosion in a St. Petersburg metro train as it travelled between the stations Sennaya Ploshchad and Technological Institute. Sixteen people were killed, including Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, whom the investigators named as perpetrator of the attack. Several dozen people were injured to varying degrees.
A little earlier on that day an unclaimed bag was found in the lobby of the Ploshchad Vosstaniya metro station. Subsequently, law enforcement authorities reported that the bag contained an explosive device and that Dzhalilov had left it there.
What do the Russian authorities say?
The authorities believe the tragedy of 3 April 2017 has been fully investigated. The FSB concluded that the attack was organized by Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (the Unity and Jihad Battalion, banned in Russia as a terrorist group) that is led by Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, an ethnic Uighur from Osh in Kyrgyzstan who uses the sobriquet Abu Salokh. The battalion takes part in combat operations in Syria and is composed mainly of Uzbeks. The purpose of the terrorist attack, according to the investigators, was to force the Russian authorities to end their military campaign in Syria.
The investigators claim that Dzhalilov was trained in Syria at the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad training camp and in early 2017 came to Russia to commit the atrocity. According to the investigators, Dzhalilov was assisted by 11 people, all subsequently prosecuted, who were mostly migrant workers from Central Asia. Four of them lived and worked in the Moscow region and seven of them in St. Petersburg.
In November 2019 the 2nd Western District Military Court found all of these individuals guilty of committing the attack in the metro, and of preparing other terrorist attacks, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 19 years to life in prison. The Military Court of Appeals is now considering an appeal against the verdict.
How does Memorial assess the investigation?
We consider the conclusions of the investigators extremely unconvincing. Even if we agree that Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, as the prosecution asserts, made the bombs and detonated one of them, we cannot consider it proven that it was Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad that organized the attack. This organization, banned in Russia, has not claimed responsibility or made any demands, and the case materials contain no serious evidence of its involvement.
However, far more important are the fates of those convicted in the case. Some were suspected of having contacts with Dzhalilov and others of having contacts with those who, allegedly, had contacted Dzhalilov. We consider the guilt of all 11 to be unproven. Moreover, after reviewing the materials of the case, we are convinced that at least nine of them are innocent. We believe that, instead of conducting a serious search for the perpetrators, the FSB in general ‘grabbed’ the first individuals they happened to get their hands on, individuals who, furthermore, had very few resources – in terms of money, knowledge, or public support – to defend themselves.
One of the most horrific aspects in the history of this investigation is torture. We believe that several of the defendants were subjected to violence in order to obtain confessions. Three of them (Abror Azimov, Akram Azimov and Mukhamadiusup Ermatov) stated they were held in a secret prison and tortured there. The journalist Ilya Rozhdestvensky verified the existence of the secret prison by comparing the allegations by Abror Azimov and Akram Azimov with descriptions by defendants in other terrorism cases who had been tortured in an unidentified basement.
What specifically are the charges in the case and why does Memorial consider most of the defendants innocent?
Abror Azimov was found guilty of sending money to Dzhalilov and instructing and encouraging him in the final days before the terrorist attack. He admits the first, although he denies he knew about any preparations for the crime; the second is allegedly proven by phone records. However, we consider it is unproven that it was Abror Azimov’s voice on the recordings or that he even telephoned Dzhalilov. Akram Azimov, Abror’s brother, is accused of bringing $2,500 from Turkey and giving this money to Abror as compensation for the money he had transferred to Dzhalilov. There is no evidence to prove that Akram Azimov acted wittingly for the purpose of assisting in the organization of the terrorist attack, except, apparently, testimony extracted under torture.
The accusations that Shokhista Karimova and Sodik Ortikov, both of whom worked with Abror Azimov in the same cafe, were involved in the terrorist attack are absolutely unfounded. Karimova and Ortikov let Azimov use their phones only at his request so that, according to these two convicted defendants, Azimov could insert a SIM card and check whether it worked. Since, according to the prosecution, Azimov used this SIM-card to call Dzhalilov, Karimova and Ortikov were considered members of the alleged terrorist group.
In 2015 Ibragimzhon Ermatov was working in the same restaurant as Dzhalilov and they called each other several times and corresponded on business matters. Ibragimzhon used a SIM-card registered to his brother Mukhamadiusup Ermatov. Apparently, this is why the FSB operatives decided that Mukhamadiusup was in contact with Dzhalilov and that is why they took him to a secret prison. On the grounds that Mukhamadiusup Ermatov, who worked as a part-time taxi driver, was once in the area where Dzhalilov lived in 2017, law enforcement officers apparently considered his guilt proven. However, upon closer examination of the evidence, it becomes clear that this was a coincidence.
As for Makhamadiusuf Mirzaalimov, Azamzhon Makhmudov, Saifilla Khakimov, Bakhrom Ergashev and Dilmurod Muidinov, all their ‘guilt’ in practice amounts to the fact that they lived in the same apartment as the Ermatov brothers. Early in the morning on 6 April 2017, FSB operatives conducted a search of this apartment and claimed to have found an explosive device similar to the one left by Dzhalilov at Vosstaniya Square. Those subsequently convicted claim the bomb was planted by the FSB officers, and, having studied the materials of the case, and also being aware of similar such incidents, we find this plausible.
For a detailed examination of the charges against the defendants and a justification of our position that the charges lack credibility or are unproven, visit our website.
Has Memorial recognized the Azimov brothers as political prisoners?
Memorial Human Rights Centre has not recognized Abror Azimov and Akram Azimov as political prisoners. This does not mean we agree with the position of the prosecution and the court. On the contrary, we believe the evidence of their guilt presented by the prosecution is ambiguous and contradictory and, in some instances, was obtained under torture and is therefore clearly inadmissible. We also believe the court ignored material contradictions in the case and failed to establish a complete, consistent, and plausible picture of the crimes allegedly committed by the Azimovs. In accordance with the presumption of innocence, in such circumstances a court should acquit the defendants. The minimal demands of law and justice require that the court should send the case back for a fresh investigation.
However, recognition as a political prisoner is, as a procedure, different from a trial. In order to confidently recognize an individual as a political prisoner, we must be fully convinced the case meets the criteria set out in the Guidelines defining a political prisoner, in particular that the accused has not committed a violent crime against the person. The cost of error is particularly high where a genuine act of terrorism is in question with a large number of fatalities. In the event that new information emerges that proves the innocence of Abror Azimov or Akram Azimov, we are ready to return to the issue of their recognition as political prisoners.
What Memorial calls for:
- Immediately release Shokhista Karimova, Sodik Ortikov, Mukhamadiusup Ermatov, Ibragimzhon Ermatov, Makhamadiusuf Ermatov, Azamzhon Makhmudov, Saifilla Khakimov, Bakhrom Ergashev and Dilmurod Muidinov; drop all charges against them and recognize their right to rehabilitation.
- Quash the conviction of Abror Azimov and Akram Azimov; conduct a fresh investigation and, if no convincing evidence of their guilt is presented and contradictions remain unresolved, they should be acquitted.
- Thoroughly investigate all allegations by the defendants of torture and beatings.
- End the practice of unofficially holding people in secret torture prisons and punish those responsible for organizing and using such prisons.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove