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Russian sect charged with child abuse after allegedly keeping kids underground for years

A reclusive sect that literally went underground to stop contact with the outside world kept 27 children in dark and unheated cells, many of them for more than a decade, prosecutors said Wednesday. The children have been freed and the parents charged with child abuse.

Some of the children, aged between 1 and 17, have never seen daylight, health officials said. The sect's 83-year-old founder Faizrakhman Satarov, who declared himself a Muslim prophet in contradiction with the principles of Islam, has also been charged with negligence, Irina Petrova, deputy prosecutor in the provincial capital of Kazan, told The Associated Press.

No members of the sect, who call themselves "muammin" after the Arabic term that means "believers," have been arrested, she said.

The children were discovered last week when police searched the sect grounds as part of a probe into the recent killing of a top Tatarstan Muslim cleric, an attack local officials blame on radical Islamist groups that have mushroomed in the oil-rich, Volga River province.

Satarov, a former top imam in the neighboring province of Bashkortostan, declared his house outside Kazan an independent Islamic state. He ordered some 70 followers to live in cells they dug under the three-story building topped by a small minaret with a tin crescent moon. Only a few sect members were allowed to leave the premises to work as traders at a local market, Russian media reported.

The children have been placed in local hospitals for observation and will temporarily live in an orphanage, pediatrician Tatyana Moroz said in televised remarks.

The cramped cells, without ventilation, heating or electricity, form eight levels under a decrepit three-story brick house on a 700-square-meter (7,530 sq. foot) plot of land. The house was built illegally and will be demolished, Tatarstan police told local media.

"They will come with bulldozers and guns, but they can demolish this house over our dead bodies!" sect member Gumer Ganiyev said on the Vesti television channel. The ailing Satarov appointed Ganiyev as his deputy "prophet," according to local media.

Satarov had followers in several other cities in Tatarstan and other Volga River provinces, local media reported.

In a 2008 interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, Satarov said that he fell out with other clerics and authorities in the Communist era, when the KGB sent him to Muslim nations with stories about religious freedom in the officially atheist Soviet Union. Government-approved Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics routinely traveled abroad on Soviet publicity trips.

"That's how I became Satan's servant, a traitor," the white-bearded and turbaned man was quoted as saying. "When I understood that, I repented and started preaching."

Muslim leaders in Tatarstan said Satarov's views contradict their dogma.

"Islam postulates that there are no other prophets after Mohammad," Kazan-based theologian Rais Suleimanov told the Gazeta.ru online publication Tuesday. "The teachings of Sattarov, who declared himself a prophet, have been rejected by traditional Muslims."

The sect members stopped accepting new members and are "only dangerous to themselves and their children," Suleimanov was quoted as saying.

Police entered Satarov's house last Friday as part of an ongoing investigation into the killing of Valiulla Yakupov, Tatarstan's deputy chief mufti, who was gunned down in mid-July as he left his house in Kazan. Minutes later, chief mufti Ildus Faizov was wounded in the legs after an explosive device ripped through his car in central Kazan.

Both clerics were known as critics of radical Islamist groups that advocate a strict and puritan version of Islam known as Salafism.

The emergence of Salafist groups in Tatarstan and other Volga River provinces with a sizable Muslim population has been fueled by the influx of jihadists and clerics from Chechnya and other provinces of Russia's Caucasus region, where Islamic insurgency has been raging for years.

Last year, Doku Umarov, the leader of the embattled Chechen separatists, issued a religious decree calling on radical Islamists from the Caucasus to move to the densely-populated Volga River region that includes Tatarstan.

Prosecutors have named two suspects in the cleric's killing who remain at large and arrested five others in the case. Islamist youth groups have staged rallies in Kazan demanding the detainees' release.

More than half of Tatarstan's 4 million people are Sunni Muslims. Tatars converted to Islam more than a thousand years ago, and the province became an important center of Muslim learning and culture under Tatar-Mongol rulers who controlled Russia and parts of Eastern Europe.

Islamic radicals from the Caucasus have called for the establishment of a caliphate, an independent Islamic state under Shariah law that includes the Caucasus, Tatarstan and other parts of Russia that were once part of the Golden Horde -- a medieval Muslim state ruled by a Tatar-Mongol dynasty.