- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Two activists accused Russia’s government on Friday of encouraging prosecutors to target Muslims on trumped up charges of terrorism and extremism, and said the abuse could lead to anti-government unrest.

Sergei Komkov, president of the non-governmental All-Russian Education Fund, asserted the Kremlin was trying to pin social ills on innocent Muslims and warned it could backfire against President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“There threatens to be a powerful explosion of public discontent in the next three or four years that could, if not stopped, lead to a change in the political leadership,” Komkov told a news conference attended by prominent rights activists.

Komkov said authorities in Russia’s southern regions are increasingly convicting observant Muslims on trumped up charges of terrorism and extremism, in an effort to satisfy what he claimed were quotas from the central government.

Long terms in Russia’s abusive prison system are turning those wrongfully convicted against society, said respected rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Prisons are becoming a production line for criminals and others with a grudge against the authorities, creating a threat to the public order, Alexeyeva said at the news conference.

An estimated 20 million of Russia’s 142 million citizens are Muslims. Most are concentrated in the southern provinces of the Caucasus, including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, and in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan near the Volga River.

Experts and activists said prosecutors began unfairly targeting Muslims after Moscow’s Dubrovka theater siege in 2002, and the Beslan school hostage seizure in 2004. Islamic militants were involved in both terrorist attacks, which killed some 500 people.

Komkov and activists said hundreds of investigators work for police and counterterrorism units created by then-President Putin after the attacks, and claimed they continue to prey on the innocent to justify their paychecks.

Isa Betsiyev, 40, a businessman and Muslim from the city of Kaluga, southwest of Moscow, said he has been harassed repeatedly by the counterterrorism branch of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, the KGB’s successor agency.

“They burst into my home in masks and flash some card at me. They collect my books (on Islam) and call me an extremist,” Betsiyev told the news conference. “This is how they make their money. This is how they justify their income.”

Betsiyev said his wife’s workplace was stormed by masked FSB officers a day after she complained of harassment, and her employers were accused of aiding extremists.

Komkov said Betsiyev’s story was typical.

Popular ignorance of Islam as a peaceful religion helps authorities scapegoat Muslims, the advocates said.

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