Tempers Flare As Court Frees Dagestani Boxer Who Killed Russian Teenager

Rasul Mirzaev, a 26-year-old mixed martial arts world champion from Dagestan, is a convicted killer. His victim was a 19-year-old Russian man, Ivan Agafonov, whom he murdered in a scuffle outside a nightclub in August 2011. On November 27, 2012, a Moscow court let him walk free, after a little more than a year in custody.

Opinions among Russian bloggers are largely split between those who believed the sentence was just and those who accuse Russian prosecutors of showing Mirzaev undue leniency.

The Case of Rasul Mirzaev

The incident [ru] occurred when Mirzaev and his girlfriend were exiting a trendy Moscow nightclub. When Ivan Agafonov tried to flirt with Mirzaev’s girlfriend, the two men began to argue and Mirzaev landed a single blow to Agafonov’s cheek, knocking him over. In the fall, Agafonov struck his head against a metallic crate on the street, and died four days later from head trauma.

After roughly a year spent in custody, Judge Andrey Fedin sentenced Mirzaev to two years of limited freedom [ru] for negligent manslaughter. Experts in the case ruled that there was no intent to kill. Judge Fedin explained that he already served his sentence while in pretrial custody (one day of which is equivalent to two days served in a formal prison, according to Russian law), and therefore Mirzaev could walk free. The judge cited extenuating circumstances: the champion turned himself in and plead guilty, he had no prior criminal record, and he is the father of a small child.

Rasul Mirzaev, Russian Combat Sambo Championship in St. Petersburg, 26 February 2011, photo by Roma Yandolin, CC 2.0.

Huge public interest has surrounded the case. Mirzaev is a native Avar from Dagestan—an ethnic republic in Russia's North Caucasus. In the post-Soviet years, hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim Caucasians have moved from their ethnic republics into central Russia in search of work, which has sparked an often dramatic cultural clash with local Russian populations, who commonly blame rises in crime levels and drug-dealing on non-Russian migrants. On the day of Mirzaev’s verdict, Russian nationalists (who oppose the influx of non-Russian migrants and immigrants, as well as multiculturalism, on principle) protested in front of the court [ru]. Prominent nationalist activist Dmitri Demushkin was quickly detained [ru] by police.

The truth is on Mirzaev's side?

Immediately after the verdict was announced, social networks and blogs across the RuNet exploded with thousands of often polarized reactions.

Among the voices supportive of the verdict were mostly liberal-leaning commentators, but also some self-described Russian nationalists. Dimitry Bavyrin commented on Facebook:

Как русский националист и человек доброй воли еще раз подчеркиваю: я не просто считаю, что приговор адекватен, я считаю, что Мирзаев наказан даже больше, чем заслуживал.

As a Russian nationalist and a person of goodwill, I stress this again: I do not just think that the sentence is adequate, I think Mirzaev has been punished even more than he deserved.

Before the verdict, on November 15, when it became known that prosecution had asked the judge to sentence Mirzaev to two years, gossip blogger Bozhena Rynska wrote [ru]:

Я совсем не поклонница кавказцев, я считаю, что большинство дагов, чеченов и прочих – плохие соседи. Я считаю, что многие из них – люди дикие, дурновоспитанные, и зверьками их в России называют не случайно, и вообще, пусть не забывают, что они тут в гостях. И – да, – мне не нравится, как нагло они себя ведут в России с русскими женщинами.

Но закон есть закон. Дело Мирзаева это ПРИЧИНЕНИЕ СМЕРТИ ПО НЕОСТОРОЖНОСТИ. Мирзаев прав – его нельзя судить как кавказца. Закон един для всех.

I'm no fan of the Caucasians, [and] I consider the majority of Dagestanis, Chechens, and others [to be] bad neighbors. I consider many of them [to be] wild, badly behaved, and the fact that they are called “zveriaki” [small wild animals] in Russia is not accidental, and generally they should not forget that they are guests here. And—yes—I do not like how arrogantly they behave in Russia towards Russian women.

But the law is the law. The Mirzayev case concerns HAVING CAUSED DEATH BY NEGLIGENCE. Mirzaev is right—he cannot be judged as a Caucasian. The law is the same for everyone.

Some people were openly supportive of Mirzaev’s deed. After all, they reasoned, he was threatened and he had to defend his girlfriend and himself from an aggressive assailant.

Pro-Kremlin blogger Eduard Bagirov (@eduardbagirov) expressed this sentiment in a Twitter reaction [ru] to the verdict:

Когда на предложение отстать от девушки какая-то наглая дичь отвечает, что “сейчас и тебя сниму” – вариантов не остаётся в принципе.

When, on your request to leave the girl alone, some insolent thug answers, “I’ll take you down,” it leaves you no other choice in principle.

Russia is not for Russians?

The majority of RuNet commentators voiced anger about and dissatisfaction with the court's leniency. Many linked Mirazev’s case to another murder that provoked riots in Moscow [ru] in 2010. That unrest exploded after a Caucasian man shot and killed Russian soccer fan Ivan Sviridov. The gunman and his friends were soon arrested, but immediately released [ru] by police, after a visit from local representatives of the diaspora. Mirzaev’s sentencing also came in a wake of a series of high-profile crimes committed in Moscow by immigrants from Caucasus (including shots fired into the air [ru] during wedding celebrations, and a knife attack [ru] on a city tram).

Mirzaev’s release nurtures the commonly held perception that police and other state authorities kowtow to influential Dagestani minorities. As a proof, bloggers cite the fact that—over the course of the trial—the prosecution reduced the charges against Mirzaev from “grievous bodily harm” (which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years) to the less serious crime of “negligent manslaughter.” They point out that Dagestani politicians have called publicly for Mirzaev’s release, giving the trial an indisputable political dimension. Despite a lack of any concrete evidence, many commentators suggest that the Kremlin was involved in negotiating the verdict.

Nationalist oppositionist Vladimir Tor (real name Vladlen Kralin) on his blog [ru] expressed feelings of helplessness against the authorities and predicted that violence would spill out into the streets.

Возможность в России легальным способом отстаивать человеческие права в борьбе с молохом государственной машины и шайтаном “малого, но гордого Канзаса” – исчезающе мала. Власть не стесняют законы – она сама их для себя пишет. Власть ощущает  угрозу своему существованию от агрессивного и нестабильного Кавказа – соизмеримых же проблем на среднерусской полосе для себя она не видит. А слезы и боль убитой русской семьи её не трогают вообще. Россия – она не для русских, как общеизвестно. […]

Воистину, никто не делает больше для розжига “экстремизма”, чем сама же россиянская власть.

In Russia, the possibility of using legal means to defend human rights in the fight against the Moloch [see here, GV] of the State machine and the Satan of the “small but proud Caucasus” is dramatically small. Authorities aren’t constrained by the laws—they write the laws to suit themselves. The authorities feel an existential threat stemming from the aggressive and unstable Caucasus, but they fail to see comparable problems for themselves in central Russia. And they are not touched by the tears and the pain of the fallen's Russian family. Russia—it is not for the Russians, as is well known. […]

Indeed, no one does more to stoke the embers of “extremism” than the Russian authorities themselves.

Some liberal-leaning commentators responded by juxtaposing Mirzaev's sentence with the Pussy Riot conviction. Prominent oppositionist and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny reminded his readers [ru] that (only a couple of weeks earlier) the same judge sentenced Maksim Luzyanin [ru], arrested after an opposition protest that turned violent, to four-and-a-half years in prison for provoking “mass disorder.” Luzhanin, like Mirzaev, admitted his guilt and even paid the dental bill for a police officer injured in the fighting with demonstrators.

Liberal opposition politician Vladimir Milov also believes that Russian authorities often give Caucasians a free ride. Milov warned that such sentences threaten mass discontent. He blogged [ru]:

Ничего себе справедливость такая – убил человека, а тебе 2 года «ограничения свободы». Самое интересное, что это ведь системное явление – мягкие приговоры кавказцам за убийства […]

Власти боятся диаспор, в доле с диаспорами, чувствуют в них свою опору. Не могут пойти им наперекор.

They call it justice: you killed a man, and you get two years of “limited freedom.” What's most interesting is that this is a systemic phenomenon—light sentences to Caucasians who have committed murder […]

Authorities fear the diasporas, they're in with the diasporas, and they sense in them a source of support. They can’t possibly defy them.

Russia's best known liberal blogger, Rustem Adagamov (@adagamov), sarcastically tweeted [ru]:

Я не пойму, Мирзаеву дали Героя России или еще нет? Сколько можно тянуть?

I don’t get it. Did they award Mirzaev the “Hero of Russia” yet? How long can it take?

In another tweet, he added [ru]:

Нет судебной системы в стране, еще один пример. Был бы на месте Мирзаева Иванов или Сидоров — сидел бы лет пять, как минимум.

It’s another example that there’s no [functioning] judicial system in this country. Were Ivanov or Sidorov [common ethnic Russian names] in Mirzaev’s place, they would serve at least five years.

Justice for the well-connected

Some commentators also noted that the court's leniency was due in large part to Mirzaev being a world champion fighter. He was, after all, something of a celebrity in Russia and a household name in his native republic.

As journalist Evgeny Levkovich said on Facebook [ru]:

Плохо вовсе не то, что Мирзаеву дали два года. (…)
Плохо другое. Понятие “справедливо” у нас распространяется исключительно на чемпионов из Дагестана, чиновничьих детишек и жен, и прочей блатной нечисти. Оно никак не распространяется на политических активистов – правых и левых “радикалов”, например.

What is wrong [with this situation] is not the fact that Mirzaev got two years.
What’s wrong is the notion that justice extends solely to Dagestani champions, the wives and children of officials, and other criminal scum. But in no way does this justice extend to political activists—to right- and left-wing “radicals,” for example.

Alexey Lapshyn addressed this point on his blog [ru]:

Приговор Расулу Мирзаеву, конечно же, нужно рассматривать как следствие социального расслоения общества, а не межнациональных отношений. Сколько молодых людей на Северном Кавказе брошены в жуткие тюрьмы по обвинению (или подозрению) в экстремизме, а по сути за свои религиозные и политические убеждения! Правозащитники справедливо причисляют их к политзекам. […] Так что разговоры о каком-то привилегированном положении кавказцев звучат там дико. Как и везде, вольготно чувствуют себя только номенклатура и причастные к миру больших денег.

Rasul Mirzaev's sentence, of course, should be seen through the lenses of the social stratification of society, not inter-ethnic relations. How many young people in the North Caucasus are thrown into a horrible prison not on charges (or suspicion) of extremism, but for their religious and political beliefs! Human rights activists rightly count them among political prisoners. […] So this talk about some privileged status for Caucasians sounds ridiculous over there [to Caucasians living in the Caucasus]. As elsewhere [in Russia], only bureaucrats and those with big money feel safe.

The republics of the North Caucasus host a violent Islamist insurgency. “Anti-terrorist” security forces operating there are regularly accused by human rights organizations of brutalizing the locals [en] with arbitrary detentions, kidnappings, and disappearances that target people suspected of being terrorists or even harboring extremist views. Most bloggers commenting on Mirzaev's case ignored the well-documented abuses of rule of law [en] in the Caucasus. This is perhaps because Russian nationalists typically do not consider the North Caucasus to be a part of Russia. Rather, they see it as a culturally distant and foreign “neighbor.”

At the heart of the problem lies the dysfunctional Russian justice system, which corruption has corroded and nefarious influence has skewed. Few dispute that Russia's courts are a tool of the authorities, which produces a dramatic lack of trust in the impartiality of court decisions. In recent months, Russian investigators and their seemingly arbitrary prosecution of oppositionist political activists has aggravated Russia's trust deficiency. Mirzaev’s case is a stark example of how this absence of trust irreparably damages Russian society by exacerbating ethnic tensions.

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