Victim Aslan Tsipinov's mother shows a newspaper article about her son.
NALCHIK, Russia — At the end of a street lined with graffiti-scrawled apartment blocks on the edge of this city in southern Russia is a steel-roofed building the size of a small aircraft hangar.
The building was constructed for a single purpose: the trial of 58 suspects -- the largest number of defendants for a single legal proceeding in modern Russian history -- accused of joining in an Islamist guerrilla raid on Nalchik on Oct. 13, 2005.
Despite the magnitude of the charges -- 142 people died in the attack -- the trial has been going on virtually unnoticed by the outside world since March 2009. Local newspapers here in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria carry occasional reports from the process, but most Russians have no clue it is even taking place.
One morning this month, I walked through an eerily quiet neighborhood, past two police cordons and several groups of soldiers cradling automatic weapons, into the hearing room, which was almost entirely empty of spectators.
It was an extraordinary sight. Three judges occupied a podium at the end of the hall, about 60 yards from where I sat. To their right sat a handful of blue-suited prosecutors. To their left, about 30 defense lawyers bent over their papers at a long line of benches. Behind the lawyers were six cages holding the defendants, mostly thickly bearded men in tracksuits and baseball caps.
What surprised me was their demeanor. The men in the cages -- they are all men -- were facing life sentences for allegedly causing the death of scores of people in coordinated attacks on police stations, Federal Security Service (FSB) offices, military buildings, and a gun store. But they looked confident. They leaned through the bars, they lolled on each other's shoulders, they exchanged jokes and sat in twos or threes, talking and smiling. At the beginning of the hearing, they prayed loudly together, their hands upturned, their eyes closed.
During the proceedings, the defendants made occasional statements into microphones in front of their cages. Some had become skilled at legalese. Others were simply swaggering.
One stepped forward to say that Khachim Shogenov, the republic's former interior minister, should be called to give evidence "while he was still alive." He warned, "Such people will be killed in this republic. By the time this process ends, praise be to Allah, they will all be destroyed." (Shogenov narrowly escaped harm last month in an assassination attempt in which two of his bodyguards died.)
The Nalchik raid was neither the first nor the most deadly attack on Russian towns or cities in the past decade. In 2002, at least 40 gunmen seized 850 hostages at a theater in Moscow; about 170 people were left dead. Two years later, a group of 32 armed men took 1,100 pupils, teachers, and parents captive at School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. Almost 400 people died.
What makes the Nalchik assault unique is that 58 suspects survived in custody, unlike earlier raids where most, if not all, the terrorists were killed in the fighting. Because of this, it's an important opportunity to explore the motivations and psyches of the militants, even if practically no one (either in Nalchik or elsewhere in Russia) appears to be watching.
Many of the accused do not deny they were involved in the 2005 events. But they dispute the details and argue that they were driven to their actions by a campaign of persecution.
"What these lads did came after months and years of provocations by the security services on the basis of their religion," said Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer who has worked with the families of the accused. "They were beaten, they were sodomized with bottles. Some had crosses shaved into their heads. Some were forced to drink vodka. It reached a point when they couldn't take any more."
That this persecution took place is widely accepted. The republic's current president, Arsen Kanokov, who came to office only two weeks before the Nalchik raid, said last September that "extreme violence" had been directed at orthodox Muslims in the years prior.
And yet no one was punished for the excesses. "The events that led up to October 13 were never properly dealt with," said Valery Khatazhukov, a Nalchik-based human rights activist. "And the ongoing sense of outrage and injustice felt by the insurgents as the trial goes on is one of the reasons they have become even more radical."
This hardening of Kabardino-Balkaria's insurgents is a demonstrable truth. Over the last three months, the guerrillas have stepped up their assassinations of policemen and state officials. And while indiscriminate mass killings using suicide bombers have been a regular tactic in the North Caucasus for at least a decade, recently the insurgents in this republic moved on to a new method of terror: gangland-style murders of individual civilians.
On Feb. 18, masked militiamen in a black car without license plates pulled over a minibus carrying a group of tourists from Moscow through Kabardino-Balkaria's Baksan district to the ski slopes at Mount Elbrus. The men asked for documents, but when the tourists refused to hand them over they opened fire, killing three. It was the first attack on tourists that anyone I spoke to here could remember.