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August 5th 2003 · Prague Watchdog / Josef Mrázek · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN CZECH 

The Zakayev Case: Cui Bono?

Josef Mrázek, special to Prague Watchdog

Things have been happening at the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London over the past few months. The initially formal proceedings that were to decide whether to extradite to Russia Akhmed Zakyev, a leading representative of the Chechen opposition and a special envoy of the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Aslan Maskhadov, are no longer a boring dispute between the lawyers over the interpretation of the international agreements on extradition. Prominent Russian figures such as a member of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Kovalyov, former Secretary of the Russian Security Council Ivan Rybkin, Federal Minister for Chechnya Stanislav Ilyasov, Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky and a well-known Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, have spoken in the British court deciding on Russian charges against Zakayev and the request for extradition.

Zakayev was charged with murder on several counts. However, the topic of the testimonies has long shifted from Zakayev’s deeds to the corrupted Russian judiciary and prison system, the brutal acts of Russian federal troops in Chechnya, and the Kremlin’s media manipulation of the conflict.

It is hard to believe that Russian authorities envisaged such a humiliation when they began to seek Akhmed Zakayev’s extradition last December. However, looking below the surface, the fact that the hearings on the extradition are actually taking place in Britain satisfies the Russian authorities, because it means Zakayev is detained outside Chechnya and unable to participate in solving the conflict. It seems that Moscow does not expect to win the case in the London Magistrates’ Court. It intends simply to live through the remaining hearings.

Who is Zakayev?

To understand this case, the key issue is: Who is Akhmed Zakayev? and Why Moscow hates him so much that it is seeking his extradition from Western Europe to Russia? Akhmed Zakayev was born in 1959 to a Chechen family, whom, as most of their countrymen, in 1944 the brutal Stalinist regime transferred to an inhospitable part of Kazakhstan, Central Asia. After his return to Chechnya in the 1960's, Zakayev studied drama and became a respected member of the Grozny theatre.

However, as most of his neighbors, during the first Russian-Chechen war in 1994-1996, he left his job and eventually became an important field commander of a Chechen resistance group. His group operated in the South West of the country with its headquarters in the town of Urus-Martan. In August 1996, Zakayev's group took part in the Chechen recapture of Grozny.

His war merits in the mid-90's paved Zakayev's way to Chechen high politics. As a moderate, pragmatic leader, he represented Chechnya at the peace talks in Khasav-Yurt, which in 1996 brought a peaceful end to the first armed conflict between Moscow and Grozny. After the talks, Zakayev became the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and a special envoy of President Aslan Maskhadov. At the same time, however, he continued to be the commander of his armed group.

When the second war between Russia and Chechnya broke out in September 1999, Zakayev briefly fought on the Chechen side. In 2000, after having been wounded, he left for abroad and turned into the most prominent representative of President Maskhadov in Western Europe.

Mediator

At the time when the Chechen resistance began to crumble and Shamil Basayev’s radical Islamist groups became more visible on the international scene, Akhmed Zakayev always kept his moderate, compromise-seeking position that emphasized the necessity of peace talks between the Kremlin and President Maskhadov.

He was successful in this role. During the last two years, he took part in a number of important discussions with prominent West European politicians. Last year, he discussed with the chief prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal at the Hague, Carla del Ponte, the possibility of establishing a similar tribunal for Chechnya. In November 2001, as a representative of the Chechen opposition, he headed to Moscow to meet with the Russian President Putin’s envoy, General Viktor Kazantsev. The meeting was to initiate the peace talks between Moscow and Grozny. Due to Moscow’ s unwillingness, no further talks of this kind were held.

As an envoy of President Maskhadov in August 2002, Zakayev took part in informal discussions between some of the leading Chechen and Russian politicians on halting the Chechen conflict. The discussions were held in Liechtenstein thanks to support from US foundations. He also participated in the preparation of the World Chechen Congress held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the fall 2002. At the congress, he did his best to persuade Western Europe that the legitimately elected government of President Maskhadov continued to seek a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict and had nothing in common with the radicals proclaiming Jihad against Moscow.

Terrorist

All this, however, contradicted the official stand in Moscow. For Moscow, Aslan Maskadov’ s government represented only one of the Chechen groups fighting against the federal center, and branded them "international terrorists."

According to Moscow, Maskhadov’s government may take a more moderate stand than radical Shamil Basayev, but it has been unable to distance itself clearly from their terrorist attacks. A number of field commanders no longer listen to Maskhadov, therefore, he is not fully representative. As a result, the title "international terrorist" applies to him as well. Moscow insists they do not negotiate with terrorists and the resistance groups' only option is to lay down their arms and surrender.

The events of September 11, 2001 and the hostage-taking incident at the Moscow theatre organized by Chechen radicals last October have only boosted the Kremlin’s position. It also gave the Russian authorities enough courage to clamp down on those members of the Chechen opposition who on the international scene cast doubts on the Kremlin's line.

Soon after the events at the Moscow theatre and at the request by the Russian side, Akhmed Zakyev was arrested in Copenhagen where he was taking part in the World Chechen Congress. When the Danish court refused to extradite Zakayev to Russia, he flew to London on December 5, 2002 where he had previously stayed with his family. Upon his arrival at Heathrow airport, however, he was detained and notified about all charges Moscow had made against him requesting his extradition to Russia.

Thanks to support from a well-known British actress, Vanessa Redgrave, who paid his bail of £ 50,000 for him, he was not jailed. However, his passport was revoked, making it impossible to travel. Since January 30, he has faced the threat of being extradited to the Russian courts.

The charge

The materials presented by the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General to the court in London did not contain the charges the Russian representatives had talked about in the media long before the proceedings began - the charges that Zakayev shared responsibility for last year’s siege of the Moscow theatre and for other terrorist attacks carried out by Chechen separatists.

After Zakayev repeatedly condemned these attacks and the prosecuting party did not have enough evidence to prove the contrary, Moscow brought back older charges. The document handed over to the court in London says that Akhmed Zakayev is held responsible for the murders of several Russian police officers and an Orthodox priest, Father Anatoli, in 1994 - 1996, when Zakayev served as the field commander in the Chechen town of Urus Martan. The twelve counts of charges include two sections claiming Zakayev took part in the illegal arrest and wounding of Russian citizen Ivan Solovyov in 1998 and in the Chechen invasion of Dagestan in the summer of 1999, during which several dozen civilians were killed (for the exact wording of the charges see www.zakayev.ru).

The Orthodox priest, Father Sergiy, was to be the ace up the sleeve of the Russian prosecution. Like Ivan Solovyov, Father Sergiy came to London to testify against Zakayev. The evidence he gave concerned the year 1995 when he and the mentioned Father Anatoli went to Chechnya to mediate the release of a captive Russian soldier. Soon after their arrival, both priests were kidnapped near the Chechen town of Urus Martan. Father Anatoli was murdered while Father Sergiy was released. According to Father Sergiy, Akhmed Zakayev was the leader of the group of kidnappers and, thus, was directly responsible for his colleague’s death, as well as for the humiliation and torture.

However, detailed hearings at the Magistrates’ Court in London discovered considerable gaps and contradictions in Father Sergiy’s testimony, as well as in a number of the other charges. For example, after his release from the Chechen captivity in 1995, Father Sergiy never mentioned Zakayev’s name. The recording of an interview done in Grozny by a member of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, Alexander Cherkasov (who also came to London to testify), a few weeks after Father Sergiy’s release, clearly indicates that the priest identified another Chechen rebel, Doku Makhayev, as the organizer of the kidnapping. It was not until 2002 that Father Sergiy started telling the press that Akhmed Zakayev was behind the kidnapping and murder of his colleague. This created suspicions that the testimonies were intentionally manipulated.

The hearings

Most other witnesses of the Russian prosecution, including Ivan Solovyov, were not very convincing. The witnesses presented assumptions as facts and at times contradicted themselves. As for the charges concerning Zakayev’s participation in the invasion of Grozny and other armed actions of his group, Akhmad Zakayev’s defence pointed to the fact that the Russian side conveniently described the then regular war between Russia and Chechnya as terrorist attacks carried out by Chechen rebels.

Zakayev’s side struck hard when it referenced the amnesty granted in 1997 by the Russian parliament to all participants in the Russian-Chechen conflict. According to the amnesty, no one (either on the Russian or Chechen side) can be prosecuted for participating in military actions in that particular period. As for Zakayev’s alleged participation in the torture of Ivan Solovyov and in the invasion of Dagestan in 1999, the defence showed both accusations to be invented and conflicting with the facts.

Much to the displeasure of the Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergey Fridinski, who attended a few hearings in London, the examination of the prosecution's witnesses, as well as the defence, gradually shifted to more general topics of the case, for instance, Akhmed Zakayev’s fate should he be extradited to Russia, his right to a fair trial, conditions in Russian prisons and treatment of Russian citizens of Chechen nationality there. At one point, the Russian Deputy Prosecutor General called through the press on British judge Workman to stop concerning himself with these circumstances and concentrate on the extradition. The judge flatly refused to do so.

Witnesses to the defence, including members of the Russian State Duma, Sergei Kovalyov and Yuli Rybakov, Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, as well as the mentioned representative of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, described in detail the terrible state of the Russian judiciary and prison system, and the mass violation of human rights in Chechnya, for which the Russian authorities are largely responsible.

Immobilize and Compromise

According to the latest news, the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London will most probably pass a judgment on Akhmed Zakayev’s extradition at the beginning of September. It is already clear that if the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General does not come up with some new charges, its request for Zakayev’s extradition will be turned down. The indifferent attitude of its British representative in court indicates that there will be no surprises. The question is how the case has served Moscow and if the trial fulfilled the government's expectations.

Even though it may not seem so--considering the unpleasant facts presented in court-- the Kremlin has most probably been satisfied with the course of the case. Despite the harsh official statements supporting the charges against Zakayev, the Kremlin did not expect the case to end in a different way. Why all the turmoil then?

Leading British expert on Chechnya, Thomas de Waal, told the London court that President Putin sought only one thing - to compromise and temporarily immobilize a moderate Chechen envoy, who contrary to Moscow‘s wishes, persistently demonstrated to the West that peace talks on the Chechen conflict were possible, but the Kremlin was not interested in them. „It is a politically motivated attempt at destroying the fledgling peace process and this is what is worrying,“ de Waal said. Most observers agree with him.

As much as Moscow succeeded to compromise Zakayev’s international reputation, it paid dearly with international disgrace during the hearings. For a while, the international attention has turned again to the brutal actions of Russian federal troops in Chechnya.

Josef Mrázek is Prague Watchdog's occasional contributor, who lives in Great Britain.


Sources:

Biography of Akhmed Zakayev (BBC, Grani.ru)
Interviews with Akhmed Zakayev (IWPR, www.zakayev.ru)
Court hearings in London (www.zakayev.ru, Jamestown Foundation)

(O/V/T)

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