Opposition figure in Ingushetia is killed

By Philip P. Pan
Monday, October 26, 2009

MOSCOW -- A popular opposition figure in Russia's restive Ingushetia province was gunned down Sunday morning in the latest killing of a government critic in the North Caucasus, prompting outrage from human rights groups and raising fears of further violence in the region.

Maksharip Aushev, a businessman who had led mass protests against alleged abuses by the government's security forces, was driving on a major highway in the neighboring province of Kabardino-Balkaria when a passing vehicle sprayed his car with more than 60 bullets, authorities said. The attack also seriously wounded a passenger.

Colleagues condemned the slaying as an attempt to silence voices critical of the authorities. They said it sent an especially chilling message because Aushev held a post on a human rights council established by Moscow and enjoyed the support of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the local governor appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev last year.

Yevkurov has reached out to human rights activists and the opposition, offering them a degree of protection, but Aushev's killing suggests that he, and by extension the Kremlin, may be losing control over the overlapping law enforcement agencies fighting a growing Islamist insurgency in the region.

In an interview with The Washington Post this month, Aushev accused the security forces of conducting an indiscriminate campaign of abductions, torture and killings in Ingushetia that had only strengthened the rebels. He singled out the powerful Federal Security Service, one of the successors of the KGB, as well as local police controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in neighboring Chechnya.

"I don't consider them officers. I consider them bandits," Aushev said over dinner during the wedding of one of his sons.

Two years ago, another son and a nephew were abducted, taken to Chechnya and tortured. Aushev blamed the FSB and won their release by organizing huge street protests, emerging as one of the most outspoken leaders of the opposition to Ingushetia's governor at the time, Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB officer and an ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

After another opposition figure, Magomed Yevloyev, was shot to death in police custody last year, Aushev agreed to take over his Web site, a news operation that infuriated the authorities with its reports on corruption and human rights violations. He later led protests that helped persuade the Kremlin to fire Zyazikov and bring in Yevkurov.

In a show of support for the new governor, Aushev said he retired from politics and no longer considered himself a member of the opposition. But he had no illusions about the new governor's ability to rein in the security forces. "From day one, they've been sabotaging him, undermining his authority and continuing with the illegal executions and torture," he said.

Aushev added that the FSB still considered him "enemy number one."

A month ago, the security forces stopped his car and attempted to take him into custody after he left a meeting with the government. He escaped only because a crowd of motorists, including an aide to the governor, surrounded him.

"If I had been a half-meter closer, they would have tied me up and I would have disappeared without a trace," he told Caucasian Knot, a Web site that covers the region.

In a statement Sunday, Yevkurov described Aushev's slaying as a "heinous crime intended to destabilize the region" and vowed to do everything in his power to punish the killers.

One of the governor's aides, Musa Pliyev, a former member of the opposition who had worked closely with Aushev, said there was little doubt "the murder was a political one" but stopped short of blaming the security services.

"If the authorities who should guarantee the freedom and safety of their citizens fail to do this, then they must be blamed for Aushev's death and many other human rights activists and journalists who have been killed recently," he added.

The shooting follows the execution-style killings of two charity workers in the Chechen capital of Grozny in August and of Natalya Estemirova, Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist, whose body was found in Ingushetia in July.

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