On December 22, the Moscow District Military Court sentenced a twenty-one-year old former Moscow State University student, Varvara Karaulova, to 4.5 years in a penal colony for allegedly attempting to join ISIS, which is banned in Russia. The prosecutor claimed Karaulova intended to join ISIS and commit a suicide attack in Russia. According to the young woman, she simply wanted to meet Airat Samatov, the man she had fallen in love with over the Internet who happened to be an ISIS fighter.
In May 2015, Karaulova left her home in Moscow and went to Turkey, attempting to cross into Syria, in order to meet Samatov, a Russian-speaking ISIS fighter and alleged recruiter. On the border, Karaulova was detained by Turkish law enforcement and deported back to Russia. She was not charged with any crime, but the federal security service (FSB) began monitoring the young woman. In October 2015, Karaulova was arrested for reconnecting with Samatov.
Karaulova’s parents and lawyers, who have a different perspective on the situation, have been outraged by her arrest and conviction.
According to her parents, after Karaulova’s return to Russia, they agreed to cooperate with investigators, in their search for Samatov. Her parents said they gave investigators access to all of Karaulova’s social media accounts, through which she communicated with the man. All communications between Karaulova and Samatov were under the investigators’ full control, the parents insisted. Karaulova’s father said the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB had even promised his daughter immunity, in exchange for collaborating with investigators. Karaulova’s parents believe authorities deceived them, and said they will never trust Russian law enforcement again.
According to Karaulova’s lawyer, Ilya Novikov, there is no evidence supporting the charges against his client. In her almost three-hour testimony in court, the young woman admitted to falling in love with and wanting to marry Samatov, but nothing more. A number of journalists and human rights activists who were present in court confirmed that Karaulova never said anything about wanting to join ISIS or carry out a suicide attack in Russia.
Novikov believes that Karalova’s conviction will make it even easier for terrorists to recruit young people in Russia, and insisted that fewer parents will approach law enforcement for help with children targeted online by ISIS members.
Over the past several years, the Kremlin has beefed up its anti-terrorism efforts, as more and more Russians have reportedly joined ISIS. But, there has been little success so far, with Karaulova’s case the first big prosecution to come out of these efforts. As this case shows, counter-terrorism in Russia is less about guilt and more about flexing the muscles of a security state.