MOSCOW // Authorities are calling it a tragic accident following a scuffle in a police car. Opposition activists are calling it premeditated murder. Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the pro-opposition website Ingushetiya.ru, was buried in Russia's restive southern republic of Ingushetia yesterday, one day after he was shot dead in murky circumstances while in police custody.
Yevloyev's death threatens to lead to a spike in violence in the mainly Muslim republic, where a low-grade Islamic insurgency regularly carries out bomb attacks and ambushes on local officials. Ingushetia neighbours war-scarred Chechnya in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region. Yevloyev was one of the leaders of the Ingush opposition, and his website is one of the last media outlets in the republic criticising Murat Zyazikov, the Ingush president and a former KGB agent, whom the opposition accuses of violently persecuting critics and authorising extrajudicial killings in the republic.
Mr Zyazikov and his supporters have denied these accusations, but the suspicious circumstances of Yevloyev's death are galvanising the Ingush opposition to continue pressing for Mr Zyazikov's removal from office by the Kremlin. Yevloyev flew from Moscow on Sunday to Ingushetia's Magas Airport, outside the republic's main city of Nazran. He was detained at the airport by police who, authorities say, wanted to question him about a recent bomb blast in Nazran.
After it emerged on Sunday that Yevloyev had died from a bullet wound to his head shortly after his detention, police sources said the opposition activist had attempted to grab an automatic weapon from one of the police officers. The gun accidentally went off, and a bullet struck Yevloyev in the temple, the sources said. Doctors were unable to save him, and he subsequently died in the hospital. Ingushetia's chief prosecutor, Yury Turygin, repeated this account yesterday, and Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles grave crimes and high-profile investigations, said in a statement that Yevloyev's death had been classified as manslaughter.
But Yevloyev's colleagues accuse Mr Zyazikov of orchestrating the killing. The editor-in-chief of Ingushetiya.ru, Roza Malsagova, addressed Mr Zyazikov directly in an open letter posted on the website. "There is no doubt that it was you who gave the order for another extrajudicial execution," Ms Malsagova wrote. Ms Malsagova fled Russia earlier this year with her three sons to seek political asylum in France, claiming that she and her family had faced threats from local authorities in Ingushetia.
A Moscow court earlier this year ordered Ingushetiya.ru to be shut down for carrying extremist content, though the site continues to operate, apparently unencumbered, on a foreign server. Mr Zyazikov yesterday evening made his first public statement on Yevloyev's death, saying he did not know the activist personally and calling the case "a human tragedy". He told Interfax news agency that law enforcement authorities were conducting "all necessary measures" to solve the crime and that "authorities are absolutely open for a dialogue".
But he also hinted that foreign governments may be attempting to destabilise the republic. "It is obvious that there are forces - including outside Russia - that have long since designated Ingushetia a zone of tactical and strategic interests and declared the North Caucasus a place where they plan to weaken the security in the southern part of our country," Mr Zyazikov said, according to Interfax.
He did not specify which foreign countries could be involved. Russian officials often make vague allusions to foreign agents addressing criticism and accusations from opponents. Hundreds of opposition activists turned out yesterday to protest in Nazran and pay their respects to Yevloyev on the day he was buried. There were conflicting reports about the number of protesters. The Interfax news agency said there were around 800 protesters, while the Ingush opposition said there were up to 3,000.
A Reuters correspondent at the scene reported that more than 1,000 people came out, and that around 500 remained after Yevloyev's body was buried, saying they would remain until Mr Zyazikov stepped down. The Kremlin has largely pacified Chechnya - the site of two bloody wars between separatists and Russian federal forces over the past 15 years - by pouring money for reconstruction into the republic and giving near total control to the authoritarian Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
But while violence in Chechnya has subsided, it has also spread across the North Caucasus to regions such as Ingushetia. Law enforcement authorities in Ingushetia regularly conduct brutal campaigns against insurgents in which, critics say, innocent civilians are often victimised. The Ingush opposition says it has collected around 100,000 signatures asking the Kremlin to replace Mr Zyazikov. The Kremlin scrapped direct gubernatorial elections in 2005, replacing it with a system in which the president essentially appoints regional heads.
But Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the Kremlin would be loath to replace Mr Zyazikov anytime soon. "This would be giving in to societal pressure," Mr Malashenko said. "This would be a sign of weakness." Whether tensions will escalate into violent clashes in the coming days and weeks depends largely on the size of street protests that will be carried out and whether local authorities can manage to head them off before they get started.
"If lots of people come out, a thousand or so, things could escalate," Mr Malashenko said. "If the protests are small, it will be easy for police to crush them." email@example.com