In the aftermath of the Moscow concert hall attack, is a harsher era under Putin in the works?


Video and photos of suspects in a mass shooting show them apparently being brutalized by Russian security forces — without any rebuke from authorities. A top Kremlin official urges that hit squads be sent to assassinate Ukrainian officials. Senior lawmakers call for restoring capital punishment, abolished decades ago.

The aftermath of the Moscow concert hall attack that killed 145 people in the bloodiest assault in Russia in two decades seems to be setting the stage for even harsher rule by President Vladimir Putin following his highly orchestrated electoral landslide last month.

Putin vowed to hunt down the masterminds of the March 22 attack that he linked to Ukraine despite Kyiv’s vehement denials and a claim of responsibility by an offshoot of the Islamic State group. He warned ominously that terrorism is a “double-edged weapon.”

Putin lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev declared that if Ukrainian involvement is proven, Moscow should respond by deploying hit men to kill the country’s leaders “in Kyiv or any other convenient place.”

The attack dealt a heavy blow to Putin less than a week after the vote that extended his rule for another six-years. It marked a major failure by his security agencies that were given an advance warning by the U.S. that extremists were planning an imminent attack.

Critics of the Kremlin argue that security forces are so focused on conducting the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times that they are distracted from tackling real threats.

In an apparent attempt to divert attention from the security lapse and rally support for the war in Ukraine, Putin and his lieutenants alleged — without evidence — that the arrest of the four suspects near Ukraine indicated Kyiv’s likely involvement.

The four, all citizens of Tajikistan, were detained by security forces in a forest about 140 kilometers (86 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

Video confessions of their involvement in the attack were released by Russian news outlets, but the veracity of those statements has been called into question because the men seemed to have been severely beaten and bore other signs of brutality when they appeared in court.

One had a heavily bandaged ear -– reportedly cut off during interrogation. Another had pieces of a plastic bag on his neck, a possible sign of attempts at suffocation. A third was in a wheelchair, barely conscious, accompanied by medical personnel.

Russian police and other security agencies have long been accused of torture, but many incidents also brought official condemnation, dismissals of those involved and criminal prosecutions.

In stark contrast, authorities refused to comment on the grisly video that emerged or the signs of maltreatment seen in court.

One video showed a man in combat fatigues cutting off part of one of the suspects’ ear and forcing it into his mouth while threatening to do the same with his genitals. Another suspect was seen with his trousers pulled down and wires attached to his genitals.

The Associated Press was unable to verify the authenticity of the images, but Human Rights Watch said it determined the men in the photos and videos were the same as those in court for their pretrial hearings.

“The rapid and widespread sharing of these videos appears to be no accident but rather some kind of appalling boast by the Putin government of its brazen disregard for basic rights, fundamental humanity, and the rule of law,” said Tanya Lokshina, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.

Kremlin propagandists sought to cast their treatment as a proper response to the massacre.

Margarita Simonyan, head of state-funded broadcaster RT, dismissed criticism and said the law enforcement personnel involved shouldn’t face any punishment.

“Imagine yourself in place of our guys who were chasing those ghouls who just mowed down many, many of our fellow citizens,” Simonyan said. “What were they supposed to do? Serve them some warm porridge and yogurt?”

Many observers saw the tacit endorsement of such brutality as an ominous sign of more to come.

“All that serves a double function -– a show of terror as a mechanism of intimidation and rallying hatred,” political analyst Kirill Rogov said in a commentary. “It normalizes hatred as a response, including to those who have questions and disagreements.”

Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, who served as liberal-minded placeholder president in 2008-12, when term limits forced Putin to shift to the premier’s seat, has turned recently into one of the harsher voices from the Kremlin.

In a commentary on his messaging app channel this week, he called for the extrajudicial killings of Ukrainian officials, arguing Russia should follow in the Soviet practice in the last century of assassinations, like those of Ukrainian nationalists Yevhen Konovalets and Stepan Bandera.

“What should we do? Simply crush the Banderite swine as the Soviet MGB did after the war,” Medvedev wrote, referring to a forerunner of the KGB, “and liquidate their leaders on convenient occasions — like Konovalets and Bandera -– in Kyiv or any other convenient places.”

The concert hall attack also brought demands from hawks and some senior lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty, which has been suspended since 1996 when Russia joined the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization.

Calls for its restoration have circulated often, particularly after attacks blamed on insurgents from the region of Chechnya and other militant extremists. They increased after Moscow left the Council of Europe after its invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the parliamentary faction of United Russia, the main Kremlin party, said the lower house would review restoring the death penalty, taking into account “society’s mood and expectations.”

Some Kremlin-connected lawmakers and others oppose the move, in an apparent sign of Putin’s hesitation.

Andrei Klishas, the influential head of the constitutional affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, argued its restoration is impossible unless Russia approves a new constitution.

Andrei Medvedev, the deputy speaker of the Moscow City Council, said Russia should never bring back capital punishment because of its troubled history in the Soviet era.

“Regrettably, our judicial system isn’t ideal and isn’t immune from mistakes,” he wrote in a commentary. “The country that saw repressions, Red Terror … and executions of those who believed in God must forget about the death penalty once and for all.”

Lidiya Mikheyeva, the secretary of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-controlled advisory board, also spoke against reinstatement and reverting “to the times of savagery and barbarity.”

“The abolition of the death penalty is one of our country’s major historic achievements,” she added.

Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian state TV commentator, also hinted that Putin doesn’t support its reinstatement. “It’s good that Russia is led by Putin, for whom the life of each of our citizens is priceless,” he said.

Despite those apparent doubts, many observers say the official tolerance of the harsh treatment of the suspects and calls for killing Russia’s enemies herald an even more ruthless era.

Net Freedoms, a Russian group focusing on freedom of speech, noted that harsh statements from Putin and Medvedev coming amid “the backdrop of demonstrative torture effectively sanction extrajudicial executions and give law enforcement agencies a directive on how to treat the enemies.”

“We are seeing the possible beginning of the new Great Terror,” the group said, referring to the purges by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of the 1930s. “There must be no illusions — the developments follow a very bad scenario and the slide is rapidly accelerating.”



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