Staunton, January 28 – Over the past year, Russian siloviki have dramatically increased the number of Muslims they have arrested and incarcerated; and as a result, the Russian penal system now faces a problem it doesn’t yet know how to solve: the rise of tightly organized Islamist jamaats which increasingly are spreading their views to other prisoners.
According to the Russian penal authorities, “Kommersant” reports today, there are 61 mosques, more than 230 prayer rooms and “more than 950” “’official’” Muslim communities in prisons and the camps, which officials say unite “about 9,000 Muslims.” But the real numbers are certainly higher because many Muslims prefer not to register (kommersant.ru/doc/2901612).
There have been jamaats and even radical ones in Russian penal institutions for some time, the paper continues; but they have become vastly more numerous over the last 15 years as the number of Muslim prisoners has increased and the level of radicalism among them has grown, according to Denis Sokolov, a specialist on the North Caucasus.
Such groups create problems for the special services, he says, because it is always easier to control prisoners who aren’t so organized and who can be bossed about by ordinary criminals. Now, he continues, Islam has become so widespread and so powerful that prisoners speak of “a green zone” run by Muslims alongside a “black” one run by ordinary criminals.
Turning to religion often happens among prisoners, Sokolov says, not only because it helps them get through the experience of jail but also because it provides “both physical defense and defense against denigrating customs.” That in and of itself is often a good thing; the problem arises when these groups turn to extremism.
The self-isolation of Muslim prisoners has begun to make both other prisoners and the law enforcement agencies “nervous,” “Kommersant says. And that in turn makes some of what the prison authorities say about Islam suspect because they are inclined to exaggerate the problem in order to win support and gain resources.
Moreover, the paper continues, it remains unknown how many ISIS supporters have in fact passed through Russian prisons and what the real attitude of the authorities is to them. Sokolov says that “the special services prefer not to stop the recruitment so that they can have an network of agents.”
But because they do and because the numbers of Muslim prisoners are now so large, the prison authorities “risk” in Sokolov’s words “losing control over the prisons.”