GROZNY, Chechen Republic – Three individuals have been arrested for witchcraft in the autonomous region of Chechnya, a subject region of the Russian Federation. The elderly individuals, two women and one man, were first detained in the Urus-Martan area in the Caucasus Mountains. They were then exposed and forced to publicly repent while being humiliated on state-run television, Grozny TV.
One woman was accused of witchcraft after reportedly recommending that a client bathe in chicken broth against the “evil eye.” The man and one of the women forcibly confessed to “consorting with djinns,” supernatural creatures from pre-Islamic Arabian Pagan beliefs and later part of Islamic theology and mythology. Djinn are often considered spirits or demons, though many sources seem them as neither evil nor good.
One of the women, Sekinat Ibragimova, is reportedly a very popular local folk healer who was sought to assist with casting spells on ex-husbands and assisted students in passing their exams. Her magical items were confiscated and exposed on Grozny TV. She was forced to sit in front of a tribunal while her items were handled by an apparent cleric who shamed her for her practice.
Ibragimova then tells viewers, “I was on the wrong path.” She added while looking down from the camera, “Don’t ask me for help anymore.”
In July, three women in Gudermes, a town about 20 miles east of the Chechen Republic’s capital of Grozny were detained in connection to magical practices. Reports stated that law enforcement caught one of the women writing inscriptions in a cemetery. A clerical spokesman reportedly said that the women do crazy things like separate wives from their husband and drive other mad. It is not clear what happened to these women.
The campaign against witchcraft began in 2013, when the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, demanded before a meeting of Islamic clerics that all such folk and magical practices cease within the republic. A clergy member said, “Witchcraft, magic, fortune-telling and the like are categorically forbidden in Islam. Even turning to a sorcerer or fortune teller is already a grave sin. This is a very dangerous phenomenon that needs to be dealt with.” Kadyrov then launched an inquisition style assault on folk practitioners by setting up the Islamic Medical Institute that was charged with countering the effects of “sorcerers and witches.”
A representative for the Chechen Ministry of the Interior is reported as saying, “In the house where they lived, various literature on magic and occultism, maps, photos of dozens of people and various items used to perform magical rituals were discovered. Under the pretext of strengthening family relations, removing damage and warding off the evil eye, healing various diseases, they took various sums of money from citizens.”
However, the motivation for the persecution does not appear to be motivated by actual religious concerns. Professor Alexei Malashenko, head of research at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute told the Caucasian Knot that widespread persecution of folk belief is not observed broadly in Russia. “For example, when money is extorted by deceit, the actions of healers cause illness, damage to health. Actually, believing or not believing in magic and witchcraft is everyone’s personal business. Among the psychics, the overwhelming majority of crooks, but if you believed, you came and gave your money. Well, you punished yourself,” Malashenko said.
Even in other Muslim regions of the republic, there is only infrequent persecution of magical practitioners according to Mikhail Roshchin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The current persecution appears to have political motivations, notably, to strengthen Kadyrov’s authoritarian control over the region, especially by increasing police control over the population.
Kadyrov says differently. He insists that his reasons are to follow Islamic law. He is reported as noting that answers are within the Koran, the text of which is believed to have curative powers. “Even if my finger is hurt, I say a prayer right away,” stated Kadyrov.
Since taking office in 2007, Kadyrov has come under criticism by numerous international organizations for human rights abuses, including the mass detention of individuals suspected of homosexual behavior. He has campaigned to restrict the public lives of women and using children for exhibition fighting. Human Rights Watch has called the forced disappearances and torture under Kadyrov’s tenure so widespread that they are crimes against humanity.
As for the individuals accused of Witchcraft, their fates are not yet clear. There were no charges identified in the television broadcast. But they may still face further criminal persecution. The television broadcast concluded with a warning that, “the clerical leadership and law-enforcement agencies are increasing their efforts for the sake of a healthier society.”