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Zakayev Welcomes Deportation Trial

Envoy of rebel Chechen president tells IWPR he looks forward to fighting Russian extradition charges in a British court.
By Thomas de Waal

Akhmed Zakayev, the chief envoy of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, says that he welcomes the extradition hearings he faces this summer in London as an opportunity to put his case before an international public.

"You could charge any Chechen who does not agree with the Kremlin's policies on Chechnya with what I am accused of," Zakayev told IWPR in an interview last week.

Talking in the tearoom of a central London hotel on February 14, the day that his first court hearing was set for June 9, Zakayev said he saw the forthcoming trial as a chance to "speak to a wide public" about his views on Chechnya and challenge Moscow's portrayal of him as a terrorist.

Zakayev was arrested in London on December 5 after flying to London from Copenhagen, where an initial Russian attempt to extradite him had collapsed. He was freed on bail of 50,000 pounds, posted by his defender and friend, the British actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Moscow accuses him of having killed a group of Russian policemen and an Orthodox priest, Father Anatoly, when he was a rebel commander in the first Chechen war of 1994-6.

The most damning case against him is made by another Russian priest, Father Sergii, who was with Father Anatoly in captivity and freed in a prisoner exchange. He has said that he was held by Zakayev in Chechnya in 1995.

Zakayev rejected the charges. He said that he had met Father Sergii (formerly known as Filip) in 1998 at the inauguration of Alexander Lebed, the late governor of Krasnoyarsk and they had had a "normal" conversation in which the priest made no accusations against him. "He has changed his story for the (Russian) general prosecutor," the envoy said.

Instead, pointing out that he had dealt with many Russian officials over the years, he said the charges were political and intended by the Kremlin to "neutralise" his negotiating activities. President Vladimir Putin toughened his stance on Chechnya after the tragic end to the theatre siege in Moscow last October, when 120 hostages, held by Chechen gunmen, died.

"They went after me because I was in Europe and using international platforms to put the Chechen case. I talked about peaceful options and I condemned acts of terror," Zakayev said. "So they had to neutralise me."

Zakayev's arrest has definitely weakened Maskhadov's cause. A soft-spoken former actor with a silvery beard, he is one of the most articulate representatives of the Chechen rebel movement. Even his enemies acknowledge he has spent much more time at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

He was one of the first delegation of Chechens who met the Russians for talks sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Grozny in 1995. Having left Chechnya at the beginning of the second war in 2000, he became Maskhadov's envoy and spent most of his time in Western Europe.

In November 2001, he met a senior Russian official, Viktor Kazantsev, for exploratory talks in the VIP lounge of Moscow airport. Then he represented Maskhadov in informal peace talks in the duchy of Liechtenstein last August, attended by non-official Russian and Chechen politicians.

His relatively moderate line has been condemned by hard line Chechen rebels, such as the radical warrior Shamil Basayev.

Certainly Zakayev goes out of his way to condemn international terrorism and attacks on civilians. In an hour and a half interview, he described Osama Bin Laden as "an enemy of humanity" and condemned atrocities committed by Chechen radicals, such as the seizure of the Moscow theatre last October and the suicide bombing of the pro-Moscow government headquarters in December, in which more than 72 people died.

"What happened in government house in Grozny was a terrible tragedy for the Chechen people," Zakayev said.

However, he expressed real venom for the pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who was once the former mufti of the Chechen independence movement and a close adviser to Maskhadov, before switching sides.

"There can be no reconciliation with Kadyrov," Zakayev stated categorically, blaming him for the beginning of the second war in Chechnya in 1999.

"Of course I knew him!" he went on, blaming Kadyrov for taking Chechnya away from secular to religious politics.

"It was he who tried to persuade Maskhadov that he was not a president, but a tsar, that the constitution (of the unrecognised state of Chechnya) was anti-religious. All the religious violence in Chechnya was the fault of Kadyrov. He spoke out against abolishing the death penalty and for public executions. It was all Kadyrov."

The Kremlin hopes to strengthen Kadyrov's status as its chosen leader in Chechnya with a controversial constitutional referendum to be held on March 23.

Zakayev, unsurprisingly, dismissed that referendum, stating that if the Russians did not begin a political dialogue with the separatist side, they would get many more years of conflict.

He conceded that Maskhadov, who had always had the reputation of a moderate, was now taking a more radical stance against the Russians, "With every day that passes, Maskhadov becomes a radical. Which European leader would put up with what he has endured over the last three or four years?

"These suicide bombers are created not by Maskhadov, Basayev or (Saudi field commander) Abu-Walid but by Putin. When every day you see death, your brother is killed, this is what becomes of you. And these people are lucky finds for Putin. So we say a continuation of the war means radicalisation. Even if the war ends now, Chechnya has 10 to 15 years' worth of problems."

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor