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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Wrestles With 'the Way of Allah'

GROZNY -- A dozen prisoners rolled off their bunk beds in the gloom as the cell door opened. Several shuffled forward, but two lay sprawled motionless on camp beds by the side wall and another two sat clutching their heads in their hands.

At the joint military headquarters in the Oktyabrskoye district, Chechen fighters were holding some 15 prisoners for drunkenness and drug abuse. All Chechens, they were a down-at-heel bunch, unlucky enough to be caught by a unit of Chechen fighters still enforcing Islamic Shariat law in Grozny.

"It is a military court, based on Shariat law," said Dzhumbulat Samkhadov, a 28-year-old former footballer, and now commander of the district since his fighters helped stormed the city in August.

"We give 60 lashes to all drunks and drug takers," he said. "We hold Russians here also but we do not beat them."

The fighters are policing the city in the absence of any police force and have banned the sale of alcohol and performed public beatings for drunkenness in keeping with strict Shariat law.

The issue, leapt upon by the Russian press as proof that Islamic fundamentalism was taking hold in the region, has revealed a dilemma within Chechen society and indeed within the separatist movement.

How Islamic is Chechnya? Now that Russian rule has been forced out, will Chechnya become an Islamic state?

The Chechens are overwhelmingly believers in the Moslem faith, but after 70 years of Soviet power, many ignored its precepts on praying five times a day, abstaining from alcohol and studying the Koran.

The bitter 22-month war changed that trend as Islam became inseparable from the fight for independence. Chechen national identity has always been a mixture of a tribal mountain tradition and Islam but the latter has been a stronger symbol of their centuries-old resistance to Russia. During the war, fighters donned headbands with Koranic inscriptions, even if they could not read the Arabic, and declared the war ghazavat, or holy war.

Those young fighters, like Samkhadov, have emerged as champions of religious values. "This war showed everything. The way of Allah is the only way," Samkhadov said.

Having spent the last year and a half fighting around his village in the mountains, he did not like what he found on returning to the big city of Grozny.

"When I saw the city, I thought how far have we fallen. Allah punished us for it," he said. Grozny had turned into a veritable den of vice and needed cleansing, he said.

Apart from arresting drunks and drug abusers, Samkhadov said he had imprisoned women for drinking and had shaved the heads of prostitutes, he said. He also confiscated cigarettes from one woman brought in for drunkenness. "Chechen women should not smoke, it is forbidden in our society," explained a 20-year-old fighter looking on.

Samkhadov, who captained the Chechen football team, Terek Grozny, before the war, said he had executed two drug dealers, shooting them himself, on Aug. 25. "It was still a war situation then," he said, with a challenging stare.

"We need Shariat law. Chechens are a fighting people but they also fear. They fear shame," he said. "I am for very strict Shariat."

Samkhadov believes the punishment he doles out will cure people of their bad habits. Most of his prisoners, surrounded by armed fighters, agreed.

"They say 'Do not drink' and we drink. I drink from my own stupidity. They want good for us and we do not listen," said Ruslan, 36, picked up drunk on the street for the second time in recent weeks. "It is the lashes that will make us give up drinking," he added.

Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev announced the imposition of Shariat law in September but pointed out in a recent interview that Shariat encompassed both harsh and mild punishments, and allowed payment of a fine as an alternative to the harshest sentences of mutilation and execution.

He was, however, adamant that Chechnya should adopt Shariat law, saying it was more just than Soviet or Russian law. He also said Chechnya should become an Islamic state, although he backed away from any comparisons with strict regimes like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying he had more in mind something like Western European countries that were based on Christian values.

There are divisions in the Chechen leadership with key figures advocating an Islamic state, while others have called for time and restraint. In Grozny, fighters have been told to stop the Shariat beatings, at least in public. The move may just be one of temporary deference to Russian sensibilities, but the issue is still clearly under debate.

Samkhadov has ignored the decree but he admits his is probably the last unit in Grozny still strictly enforcing Shariat law.

The commandant of Grozny, Aslanbek Ismailov, one of Chechnya's top field commanders, drew the line at creating an Islamic state, saying the Chechens were far from ready for it. The Chechen criminal code was still being refined and was in fact well short of Shariat law, he added.

Yet over at the Oktyabrskoye headquarters, a civilian prisoner took off his jacket and lay down on a narrow table at the end of the corridor. Above him a bearded fighter, in camouflage uniform, brandished a white stick. Cut from a special tree, it was a centimeter thick and stripped of its bark.

Clamping his right elbow to his side with his free arm, the fighter beat the prisoner with lightning strokes of the forearm down the prisoner's back and on the backs of his thighs.

The punishment, 80 lashes for drunkenness, took barely a minute. The prisoner, who only winced towards the end, stood up with the barest hesitancy and, taking the beater's hand, embraced him.

Whether the Chechens adopt strict Shariat or not, they are firm in their rejection of Russian law. The centuries' old traditions of Chechnya, where disputes are settled by consensus of the elders, continue to dictate the way of life.

Chechens always settled their affairs among themselves throughout communist times, irrespective of whether Soviet justice or prison terms had been dealt, Ismailov said.

"If a strong state like the Soviet Union could not root out all that, it means that we need to tackle the question in another way," he said.