2 Russians convicted in murder of Chechen

Agents receive life term in death of exiled leader

July 01, 2004|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - A court in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar convicted two Russian intelligence agents yesterday for the assassination of an exiled Chechen separatist leader and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

The Feb. 13 murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a leader of the Chechen rebels in 1996 and 1997, and the arrest of the Russians were widely seen as signs of Russia's willingness to target its enemies even outside the country's borders. Yandarbiyev, who was living in exile in Qatar, died after his car exploded. The attack also injured his 13-year-old son.

Moscow acknowledged that the defendants were intelligence officers visiting Qatar without diplomatic status. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov continued to insist yesterday that they were innocent.

Prosecutors had unsuccessfully sought the death penalty. Some observers said that, having escaped that punishment, the men would likely be allowed to return to Russia once a diplomatic deal is reached.

"The Russian leadership issued an order to assassinate the former Chechen leader Yandarbiyev," Judge Ibrahim Nisf said in concluding the trial, which was conducted mostly behind closed doors. "The plan was discussed at Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow."

Aslambek Aslakhanov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, told the news agency Interfax that Moscow "will do everything possible to get the court to reverse its verdict."

Yandarbiyev's widow, Malika, attended the court session yesterday. Also attending was Akhmed Zakayev, the Denmark-based representative in Europe of ousted Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who led the republic during a period of de facto independence in the 1990s and is now a guerrilla leader.

Zakayev said the verdict showed "who is the terrorist and who is the victim of terror."

A nationalist poet and children's author, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev became acting president of the self-declared independent republic at the end of a 1994-96 war after his predecessor was killed by a Russian missile. He headed peace talks between Chechen separatists and then-Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, which led to a temporary Russian withdrawal and three years of de facto independence. He was also a proponent of radical Islam.

Russian authorities suspected him of links to the 2002 seizure by Chechen rebels of hundreds of people at a Moscow theater. That standoff ended with the deaths of 129 hostages, nearly all from a gas used by security forces who stormed the building, and all 41 hostage takers, many of whom were shot.

Usman Ferzauli, another representative in Denmark of the self-proclaimed Chechen government-in-exile, said in February that Yandarbiyev had spoken by telephone with the leader of the hostage takers during the theater seizure, as claimed by Russian intelligence, which apparently monitored the conversation. But Yandarbiyev had been seeking the release of all hostages, he said.

The Moscow law firm defending the two convicted men released a statement declaring that they had been "illegally seized at a Russian diplomatic residence" in Doha, the Qatari capital, five days after the assassination. Because of this violation of diplomatic immunity, "the arrest and actions which then followed must be deemed illegal and void," it said.

"No credible evidence of the Russians' complicity to the crime was produced at trial," it said.

Moscow's stance suggests that the men would not remain imprisoned long once they were returned to Russia.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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