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Feature Story May 16, 2002
From Chelni To Guantanomo
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 4 of 6
Russian newspapers have hypothesized that Airat will be arrested the minute he crosses into Russia for his illegal border crossing, which is one of the charges that will be leveled against the Russian Guantanamo prisoners. Emina, who has carefully saved every scrap written about her son or on his behalf since the persecution started, was desperate for any news of him.

As weird as Airat's story is, Kashapov, president of the Chelni TOTs bureau, claims that the chain of events that landed him in Afghanistan is far from unique. From a shabby, computerless office on the ninth floor of a ratty Soviet residential building, he agitates for Tatar independence and an end to persecution of Muslims. It was immediately clear that he wasn't in it for the money or glamour.

He claims that up to 1000 religious young men from Tatarstan and the surrounding regions, including Airat, Khazhiyev and Gumarov, were "thrown out [of Russia] for their Islamic beliefs." Although he doesn't have any proof, he believes that many of them probably wound up in Afghanistan.

Kashapov is clearly not a very observant Muslim, but he said he sympathized with everyone who went to fight against the Americans. "How can a Muslim watch bombs fall on a mosque with indifference?" he asked.

Kashapov was the only person I met who knew all three prisoners being held by the Americans. While he only knew Khazhiyev casually as Almaz (the name he often went by), he told me in some details about Gumarov, who often attended TOTs events with his wife Liliya and three daughters.

Gumarov had become religious in the mid-90's and was a small-time businessman involved in trade with Chechnya during the interwar period. According to the FSB's Kashapov, Gumarov, like Airat, came into their radar in 1999, around the time Putin was gearing up for another war in Chechnya. No actions were ever taken against him, the FSB's Kashapov said.

Understandably, the war was bad for Gumarov's business and it failed. Soon after, for reasons that are still not clear, he decided to leave Russia and wasn't heard of again until the Pentagon released his name as one of the prisoners in Guantanamo. When his wife Liliya heard the news, she flipped out and moved her family to Kazan. She could not be located for this article.

The TOTs president is convinced that Russian government pressure was at least part of the reason why Gumarov left Russia -- setting him on the course that led him to battle and surrender to the Americans.

Kashapov is familiar with government harassment tactics; TOTs used to have a somewhat nicer office, until the organization was expelled from it -- unconstitutionally, he says -- less than a year ago. A collection of OMON, FSB and militsia agents forced 50 TOTs members out on July 2, 2001, in what Kashapov labeled a pogrom.

Kashapov doesn't hide TOTs' ultimate goal of uniting the surrounding regions with large Turkic populations into a confederation independent of Russia; he even showed me a fanciful map with a united state stretching from Central Asia to Turkey that would impress any pan-Islamicist. "The faster Russia falls apart, the sooner this will happen," he reasoned.

It all seemed a bit absurd. Shamsutdinov, the deputy Tatarstan representative in Moscow, didn't seem too worried about their activities, saying "they have their ideas about independence, but the majority in Tatarstan understands that we are part of Russia."

Tatarstan was colonized by Ivan the Terrible 500 years ago; it is one of the last remnants of the Golden Horde that once ruled over Russia.

While Shamsutdinov isn't breaking a sweat over Tatar radicals, the Russian government isn't taking any chances -- on April 15, Russian tax inspectors ordered the Chelni TOTs to pay 23,995.23 rubles (about $770) in profit tax. According to Kashapov, the inspectors didn't make it clear what had been profited upon, or why it was suddenly acceptable to tax non-profit organizations.

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