Friday prayer at the grand mosque of Makhachkala, site of the historic April 2012 meeting between Dagestan’s Sufi and Salafi Muslims.

© 2010 Yuri Kozyrev/Noor

(Moscow) – The killing of a prominent Sufi leader in Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan on August 28, 2012, is a heinous crime that risks further destabilizing a troubled region and leading to serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The Russian authorities should ensure that the investigation of the killing proceeds promptly and that international human rights standards are strictly observed, Human Rights Watch said.

Russia’s North Caucasus region is the center of an Islamist insurgency, which has been most intense in Dagestan. Said Afandi al-Chirkavi (Atsaev), 74, who was killed in an apparent suicide bombing, was widely recognized as the most prominent Sufi sheikh in the region. Russia’s Investigation Committee, the state agency in charge of criminal investigations, said that a woman entered his home at about 4 p.m. on August 28 with a crowd of his followers and activated a portable explosive device. In addition to the sheikh and the bomber, six other people were killed – the youngest an 11-year-old boy – and one was wounded.

“There is a real risk that the attack could jeopardize the efforts of Sufi and Salafi communities to join their forces to bring stability to Dagestan and make their common home a better place,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The federal and local authorities should do everything in their power to prevent a situation arising in which further human rights violations engulf the republic.”

The killing of Sheikh Said Afandi could result in increased tensions and violence in Dagestan and damage efforts to promote dialogue among the government and Muslim groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Afandi played an active role in promoting negotiations between Sufi Muslim leaders from the republic’s Spiritual Department of Muslims (DUM), an official agency, and Akhlyu Sunna, an organization of prominent Salafi Muslims, adherents to a literalist trend in Sunni Islam who seek to rid Islam of innovations accrued over the centuries.

The Sufi Muslim leadership has close ties to Dagestan’s political establishment, and federal and local authorities have largely viewed Salafis as radicals who have rejected “traditional” Islam and supported the Islamist insurgency. Salafi Muslims have been especially subject to persecution and counter-insurgency-related abuses by law enforcement agencies, such as enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions.

Human rights violations by law enforcement inflame hostility and perpetuate violence in Dagestan and in the North Caucasus as a whole, Human Rights Watch said.

In the past year, Dagestan’s president and government have appeared to seek social consensus and stability, including by starting a dialogue with the republic’s Salafi communities. Contacts were also initiated between Sufi and Salafi leaders. In April, in an unprecedented move, the two groups signed a resolution for cooperation. On August 29, the day after Afandi’s killing, Akhlyu Sunna issued a statement condemning the attack and expressing condolences to the families of the victims.

The authorities have already identified the victims and the suicide bomber and are proceeding with the investigation into the attack. In the interest of preventing further human rights violations in this unstable region, Russia’s leadership should ensure that law enforcement officials involved in the investigation demonstrate full respect for human rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.

“This is a critical time for the region,” Williamson said. “If the authorities handle this investigation with fairness and respect, it can help support the efforts to bring together people on all sides who want peace and stability.”