“Daddy, I Made a Mistake. Take Me Home”
Russian authorities turn their backs on the families whose children fall for IS*
Varvara Karaulova — she legally changed her name to Alexandra Ivanova, but everyone still calls her Varvara — sits inside the defendant’s dock, in her elegant turquoise dress, and cries. “Your honor, please allow us to pass a handkerchief to the defendant — she is in tears,” says her lawyer Sergei Badamshin.
“Can we allow this?” the judge asks the police officers guarding Karaulova in the courtroom. “No, this is not allowed,” one of them answers unemotionally. “Parcels are only allowed in pretrial detention.”
It is the seventh hearing of the trial, and Karaulova’s father, Pavel, is on the stand testifying. After a year confined to the Lefortovo pre-trial detention prison, infamous for its poor conditions, Varvara underwent an unexpected transition. The frightened, depressed girl who hid from cameras in her coat’s hood turned into an attractive young woman who wears make up, smiles confidently and exchanges jokes with her lawyers.
But even this new, confident Varvara couldn’t hold back her tears as she listened to her father’s voice cracking as he described the day she disappeared. The defense maintains that she ran off, blind with love, to meet her fiancé — who turned out to be an IS recruiter — in Syria. But the prosecution claims she left to join the Islamic State terrorist organization. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.
Pavel would never forget that day, he said. He and his ex-wife, Varvara’s mother, made thousands of calls that day — to their daughter’s friends, her teachers, the police, emergency services. With little help from the state agencies, Karaulov ended up going to Turkey on his own, looking for Varvara, eventually locating her and bringing her home — only to have her arrested half a year later.
There is, indeed, no place where families whose children fall under the influence of IS recruiters, can go and ask for help, says Zoya Svetova. A journalist, prominent human rights activist, and former member of a Public Watch Commission, she frequently inspected the Lefortovo prison where Karaulova was kept and has followed the case extensively.
“They have nowhere to run to. The rescue of a drowning man is the drowning man’s own job,” Svetova told The Moscow Times. “No one apart from the FSB can interfere and help, but this ‘help’ usually lands the person in question behind bars.”
The Long Way Home
Varvara Karaulova, a 19-year-old philosophy student who lived with her mother Kira, didn’t come home on May 27, 2015. Her worried parents rushed to their local police station. Usually, Russian Ilya Novikov, a prominent lawyer that defended Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko, joined Varvara Karaulova’s defense team on Oct. 17. law enforcement opens a missing person case only 72 hours after the person disappeared, but Pavel Karaulov convinced police officers to start the investigation immediately. “They must have seen trepidation in our eyes and that made them meet us halfway,” he said in court.
During the next several days, Karaulov would call, visit, and submit official requests to every law enforcement body he could think of: the Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, and the Moscow Police. He would also call Varvara’s friends and teachers.
Much to his surprise, he found out that his daughter, baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, wore long skirts to the university and covered her head with a shawl to make her look like a Muslim. Varvara’s peers also told him that Varvara had a boyfriend for three or four years, a Muslim who lived outside of Russia, whom she had never met and with whom she only corresponded on social networking sites.
Through personal connections — Karaulov reportedly used to work for an IT firm that dealt with various government institutions — he found out that Varvara got herself an international passport and bought a plane ticket to Istanbul.
People who knew about the family’s situation told Karaulov that women were being transported to Syria through Turkey.
“My daughter is not a monster, she is just a girl who can’t get over the addiction to someone she loves.” Kira Karaulova