Saturday, November 30, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Penal Institutions Said Breeding Grounds for Islamist Radicalism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 30 – Only 1100 of the 560,000 inmates of Russia’s prison camps are serving time for Islamist extremism, but increasingly this small group along with Islamists who have been convicted of crimes is spreading its radical message to many confined for other crimes, a phenomenon Russian commentators are calling “prison Islamization.”

            Lastwek, Valery Trofimov, head of the Russian penitentiary system, said that while  radicals of all kinds, including Russian nationalists, are using the prisons as “universities,” the Islamists “represent a threat not only because they are able to effectively spread their ideology to other Muslim convicts but also draw into their ranks prisoners of other faiths” (

            At present, he said, penal officials are engaged in prophylactic work with 426 prisoners, a 40 percent increase from a year earlier and a trend reflecting the general increase in the number of inmates convicted of crimes arising from “political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred.” Their numbers have roughly doubled since 2009.

            Within the Russian corrective labor camp system, Trofimov said, there are now 279 Islamic communities which unite soe 10,600 Muslims. There are 51 mosques in operation, and three more are being built. There are 228 Muslim prayer room, and there are more than 85 Muslim courses in which “more than 7800” inmates are enrolled.

            Trofimov added that he and his Russian colleagues are currently studying the work of officials in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Iran concerning the “rehabilitation” of Islamic fundamentalists, including the plans of these countries to set up “centers for the rehabilitation of radicals.”

            The FSIN director’s report was delivered to an All-Russian Conference on Countering the Dissemination of Radicalism in Places of Detention, a meeting that its organizers put together because of three fears: the spread of radicalism among prisoners, the combination of religious fanaticism and ordinary crime, and high rates of recidism among prisoners (

            At the meeting, Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, laid particular stress on what he said was “the serious threat” that radicalism and ordinary criminality are “fusing” in ways that make countering both more difficult and require the joint efforts of state structures and civil society (

            Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam at the Moscow State Linguistics University, said that what is especially troubling is that there is now no good way to identify Islamist radicals who have been convicted of other crimes. He suggested that prosecutors or judges be required to note any radical ties of those they convict (

            Maksim Shevchenko, director of the Center for Strategic Research on Religion and Politics, argued that the best way to deal with extremists under detention is to “recognize them as political prisoners and keep them not in separate cells but in special institutions here the authorities could work” with them (

            And Anatoly Rudy, Trofimov’s deputy, said that the prison system has already adopted three strategies in dealing with the problem of the spread of radicalism in general and Islamism in particular. First, it has turned to representatives of traditional Islam to serve as instructrs.  Second, it has redoubled efforts to confiscate and destroy radical literature. And third, it has isolated “the most active” radicals.

            But other commentators, including Dzhannat Sergey Markus, a Muslim broadcaster, suggested that there is very little the authorities can really hope to achieve: the nature of imprisonment itself makes a turning to Islam even in its most radical forms an attractive option for those incarcerated, as international experience shows (

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