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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crackdown on Terror Takes Aim at Caucasians

Whenever the city goes on a cleaning spree, it is Moscow's darker-skinned residents, especially those from the Caucasus region, who tend to be swept under the rug.

Driven by Mayor Yury Luzhkov's calls to rid Moscow of "elements dangerous to society" after last week's terrorist bombings that destroyed two Moscow trolleybuses, some 23,000 heavily armed Interior Ministry police have flooded streets, housing complexes and metro stations for Operation Regime. Their mission: to seek out anyone in Moscow without a residence permit or with some criminal intent.

On Sunday and Monday alone, the Moscow police, armed with bulletproof vests and shiny metal handcuffs, detained and conducted document checks on 6,000 people, many of whom were fined for being in Moscow without being registered with local authorities.

A police spokesman denied that Operation Regime was directed against the Chechen diaspora in Moscow, but a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of those stopped by police are Chechens, Azeris, Armenians and anyone else with swarthy skin.

Even those whose documents are in order are not spared police harassment. The debris from the first trolleybus blast was not even cleared before people such as Ruslan, an Azeri fruit trader, knew they were in for trouble.

One day after the second terrorist bomb ripped apart a trolleybus, Ruslan was walking with another dark-skinned friend near Moscow's Kursky train station when they were stopped by two policemen who requested their passports.

"I have a temporary propiska [residence permit]," said Ruslan, showing the document that allows him to reside in Moscow for 45 days. Like many people interviewed for this story, Ruslan was too frightened to give his real name to a journalist.

He alleges the police took their documents and threw Ruslan and his friend in a cell, offering no explanation. "After 24 hours, they told us to give them 100,000 rubles each if we didn't want to spend another day in the cage," said Ruslan, who was back selling fruits at the Baumansky market Monday.

These spot checks are not limited to the streets. At the Izmailovo flea market on Sunday, shashlik stands were temporarily shut down while heavily armed police collected passports and marched a column of dark-skinned traders off for verification. And, according to a report in Sunday's Moskovsky Komsomolets, police phoned a journalist with an Armenian name at the paper to question how long he had been living in Moscow.

"It doesn't matter who is responsible for the bombs," said Rachel Denber, director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. "We all know who is going to get blamed."

Mayor Luzhkov last week publicly suggested Chechen terrorists were responsible for Thursday and Friday's bombings. Luzhkov's statement was immediately protested by a representative of the Chechen government in Moscow.

According to a spokesman for the Moscow-backed Chechen government, police have raided Chechens in their homes as well. Complaints from the Chechen diaspora -- which includes 12,000 people registered in their passport as being of Chechen nationality -- have been flooding the office for the past several days.

"The calls started coming in on Thursday," said Leche Shantayev, a Chechen spokesman. One of the first calls was from a Moscow resident who flew into Sheremyetovo airport the day of the first trolleybus blast. His documents were taken away, and he was detained at passport control for three hours.

"When he asked why he was being detained, the border guard replied he had no intention of explaining anything to a Chechen," Shantayev said.

"If you are black [the pejorative word used to refer to people of Caucasian ethnic background], you are used to this treatment," said Ruslan, adding that the police need little excuse to harass them and collect fine money for nothing at all. "Whenever they get the chance, they like to remind us that they can round us up and drive us out of town like dogs."