Russians trade journalist-critic for three POWs

Noncombatant held, then handed over to enemy in Chechnya

February 04, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Treating a Radio Liberty reporter in Chechnya as if he were a hostage, Russian authorities unexpectedly announced yesterday that they were ridding themselves of one of the country's most intrepid journalists by turning him over to Chechen rebels in a prisoner exchange.

Andrei Babitsky, whose reporting had infuriated the leaders of Russia's military operation in Chechnya, had been held in detention since his arrest there two weeks ago, and he was supposed to be on his way to Moscow yesterday.

Instead, in a strange and ominous move, the Russians said they had handed one of their citizens to a Chechen field commander. A Kremlin spokesman said the Russian government could no longer be held responsible for his fate.

Babitsky's wife, Lyudmila, and his colleagues at the U.S.-funded radio service said they have no idea where he is and are deeply worried about his safety.

"What will happen to Babitsky now is the question," said Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired army colonel and reporter for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "Whose bullet will hit him?"

It was an unprecedented and disturbing act. Russian authorities have made it very difficult for journalists to work in Chechnya, and they appear to be making an example of Babitsky, a 35-year-old Russian who has been unusually diligent in reporting from Chechnya since the fighting began last summer.

The Kremlin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, displayed a letter that he said Babitsky had signed agreeing to the exchange, in which two or three Russian soldiers were released by the Chechens. Yastrzhembsky said it was the Chechens who had proposed the swap, and he quoted a letter received from them on Sunday asking the federal forces to "release our friend and reporter Babitsky who stood shoulder to shoulder with us, protecting the interests of the Chechen people."

It appeared to be an overt attempt by the Russians to undermine Babitsky's credibility by portraying him as a comrade of the rebels. But to hand him over to those rebels -- as if he were a hostage who could be bargained over -- puts his life in considerable danger, as Russian forces press their assault on the lawless breakaway republic.

Babitsky was delivered to a Chechen commander named Turpal Ali Atgeriyev at 3 p.m. yesterday, at a crossroads between the villages of Argun and Shali, Yastrzhembsky said.

But the Chechen foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov, was reported as saying last night that as far as he knows, no exchange took place.

Thomas A. Dine, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said in a statement released at the organization's headquarters in Prague that Moscow was using Babitsky as "a pawn in its war on its own citizens."

The exchange, he said, "makes an already bad situation even worse. It violates universally recognized principles of human rights, principles that the Russian government has committed itself to."

U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said yesterday that the reports from Russia "raise very serious questions about Russia's adherence to its international commitments regarding the treatment of noncombatants."

Babitsky earned a reputation as a daring reporter during the first Chechen war, in 1994-1996. In December, he came to the attention of the authorities when he was among the first to report that a column of armored vehicles trying to enter Grozny had been ambushed, with more than 100 Russian soldiers dead.

The army vigorously denied that it had happened, though it is now clear that Babitsky's reports were accurate.

The Russian news media has been so muzzled during this war that people are turning for news to such outlets as Radio Liberty, which broadcasts in Russian, much as they did in the Soviet era. Babitsky's reports have been prominent.

"He's a bit of a cowboy," said Chrystyna Lapychak, the Europe program coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a telephone interview from the group's New York headquarters. "He's willing to do all sorts of strange, controversial things."

On Jan. 8, an employee at a photo lab in Moscow alerted police when Babitsky's wife brought in pictures the reporter had taken that showed corpses in Chechnya. The police raided her Moscow apartment but eventually returned the negatives. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, took the negatives Jan. 21 and returned them three days later. She didn't know it at the time, but her husband was already in detention in Chechnya.

Babitsky had been seized Jan. 18 and was held by the FSB on the grounds that he did not have the proper documents to be working in the war zone. Investigators talked about bringing charges against him for fighting alongside the rebels.

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