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Russia jails woman for trying to enter Syria to join Islamic State lover

Varvara Karaulova was detained last year after she tried to cross into war-torn Syria from Turkey while still a philosophy undergraduate at the Moscow State University.

world Updated: Dec 23, 2016 11:32 IST
Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova sits inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at Moscow's district military court on Thursday.
Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova sits inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at Moscow's district military court on Thursday.(AFP photo)

A Russian military court on Thursday sentenced a 21-year-old student, who tried to enter Syria after falling in love with an Islamic State jihadist, to four-and-a-half years in prison.

Varvara Karaulova was detained last year after she tried to cross into war-torn Syria from Turkey while still a philosophy undergraduate at the Moscow State University.

Judge Alexander Ababkov said in court that the “criminal activity of the defendant continued for quite a long time” and that Karaulova had a criminal intention.

He said she was a “supporter of radical Islamist views” and decided to join IS, aware of the jihadist group’s aim to “create an Islamic caliphate.”

Karaulova was charged last year with preparing to participate in a “terrorist organisation”, but pleaded not guilty, saying she was motivated by love for a Russian jihadist fighting in Syria.

Karaulova, her dark hair in a pony-tail, looked calm as the judge read the verdict, watched by family members including her parents and stepmother.

Defence lawyer Sergei Badamshin said it was a “very harsh, unjustified sentence” and “we have already appealed.”

Prosecutor Mikhail Reznichenko said his side, which had requested a five-year sentence, was satisfied with the decision.

Karaulova’s lawyers argued that the authorities are trying to make an example of her to warn off other young Russians from trying to head to Syria, where Moscow is conducting a bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Her father Pavel Karaulov condemned the sentence as “absurd.”

He told reporters outside the court that he now regrets having gone to the authorities when his daughter disappeared, saying: “I made a mistake... by turning to those who should protect our security.”

Lawyer Ilya Novikov said the sentence sent a message to parents in a similar situation that “you must not go to the FSB (security service), you must not believe the state.”

‘Stupid escapade’

In her last words in court on Wednesday, a weeping Karaulova said her attempt to cross into Syria was “all a mistake, a very stupid reckless act.”

“I have realised all my mistakes and my stupidity,” she said. “I dream of making amends for my guilt for all this stupid escapade.”

In 2012, while still a teenager, Karaulova met a man named Airat Samatov online and they wrote to each for three years without ever meeting.

Samatov went to Syria in 2014 and told her he was fighting for IS. Karaulova converted to Islam and began wearing a hijab.

She disappeared without warning in May, 2015, prompting a frantic search by her parents. They found that she had flown to Turkey and travelled to the border with other women hoping to join men fighting for IS.

Turkish border guards detained the group and she was forced to fly back to Russia with her father. Investigators initially said she was being treated as a witness before arresting her in October, 2015.