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This was written by Farangis Najibullah and originally published at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL’s Ukraine Service correspondents Volodymyr Prytula in Crimea and Maryana Drach in Prague contributed to this report.
The headlines were nothing short of chilling.
“Aspiring ‘Miss Ukraine’ Killed Under Shari’a Laws In Crimea” warned Ukrainian online newspaper “Gazeta Po-Kievski.”
“Radical Islamists Murder Young Girl In Crimea,” screamed Russia’s “Svobodnaya Pressa.”
“Muslim Girl,19, Stoned To Death After Taking Part In Beauty Contest,” was the headline on Britain’s “Mail Online,” the “Daily Mail” website.
The circumstances around the death of Kateryna Korin, a 19-year-old Ukrainian student on the Crimean peninsula, appeared to point to a made-for-tabloid tragedy: a young beauty-pageant contestant brutally killed by her admirer, a radical Islamist who chose to stone her to death under an unforgiving interpretation of Islamic law.
There was just one small problem: They weren’t true.
Law-enforcement officials in Crimea have responded to the reports of Korin’s killing by saying the tragedy was an “absolutely routine crime” that involved neither stoning, Shari’a law, nor any religious motive.
“The killing of the girl that took place in the Sovietskoye district of Crimea does not have any underlying reasons like religious, national, or interethnic motives,” Olha Kondrashova, a spokeswoman for the Crimean division of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “A young man has been detained as a suspect, and an investigation is under way.”
The suspect is believed to be Bilyal Gaziev, a 16-year-old native of the same northern Crimean district and a classmate of the victim’s at a local college. He has been charged with premeditated murder, according to law-enforcement officials quoted by Ukrainian media.
So how did a routine — albeit tragic — crime of passion turn into a frightening story about a Shari’a-sanctioned stoning?
Some believe the suspect’s name and his parents’ religious backgrounds have played a role.
Some activists describe it as a campaign to incite religious hatred against Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group on the Crimean peninsula. Some Ukrainian websites, including ukra.news, point the finger at Russian media allegedly seeking to manipulate religious sentiments to destabilize Crimea.
Korin reportedly disappeared on May 12 and her body was discovered a week later, dumped in a nearby forest. Police believe she was strangled and then struck in the head with a stone or other blunt object.
Eyewitnesses told reporters that Korin was last seen going into the forest with Gaziev, who, according to classmates and relatives, was Korin’s friend and admirer.
Gaziev, an ethnic Russian, was adopted from an orphanage by a Crimean-Tatar family, when he was two months old. Quoting local religious leaders and neighbors, media reports describe Gaziev’s parents as non-practicing Muslims who don’t attend mosque.
Initial reports about the killing appeared on May 25 but stuck to the basic facts that Korin had been slain in a forest.
But a day later, Russian-language websites in Ukraine, including Novoross.info and Rusnovosti.ru, began giving the story a more sensational — and erroneous — twist.
Some of those reports claimed that Gaziev was a follower of radical Wahhabi teachings and that he and two other men stoned the victim to death because she violated Shari’a law by participating in a beauty contest.
Novoross.info quoted Yuri Pershikov, leader of a local Cossack youth organization called Zvezda, as a source for the story — although it is unclear how he would have specific knowledge about the crime. Pershikov told the publication that the young woman was killed by stoning, which he called a “medieval barbaric act.”
Pershikov also claimed, according to novoross.info, that “Russian children are being murdered by Islamic extremists” in the neighborhood of a local madrasah, or religious school. He said that he wouldn’t rule out the suspect had ties with students at the madrasah.
Two killings did in fact take place in the area in 2010, and the suspect was reportedly an ethnic Tatar. But police say the suspect suffered from mental illness. There was no evidence suggesting that the killings resulted from Islamic extremism.
Pershikov also criticized the fact that Gaziev, the ethnic Russian suspect, had been given up for adoption to a Muslim family, calling it a “social experiment.”
The story then spread to media in Russia and was picked up by international outlets, including “The Daily Mail” — lending it a veneer of credibility. “The Daily Mail” did not respond to requests for comment. By June 2, the original story had been replaced to suggest “a stalker” might be responsible for the killing but continued to incorrectly identify Korin as a “glamorous Muslim beauty queen.”
Finally, the story then went full-circle, with Russian and Ukrainian news outlets citing “The Daily Mail” report.
Remarkably, nobody in this chain of misinformation checked the basic facts of the original report.
The ‘Islam Card’?
Crimean Tatars say the whole affair has provoked anti-Muslim sentiment” and have called for an investigation.
“It looks like an informational diversion,” says Rifat Chubarov, a Crimean Tatar community leader. “Taking into account that in recent days this information was spread by many mass media outlets, I demand that our Ukrainian Security Service launch an investigation to find out the source of this false information.”
Locals in Crimea’s Sovietskoye district are clearly troubled by the brutal crime but don’t link it to religion, judging by interviews by RFE/RL’s Crimea correspondent.
Until now, Islamic radicalism has not been an issue in Crimean villages. But that might just change if unscrupulous media continue to play the religious card.