Governments and other organizations with “deep pockets” usually deny paying ransoms or bribes, and the terrorists or corrupt bureaucrats who receive such payments also usually prefer to keep them secret. More than once a kidnap victim has been freed in the Caucasus under suspicions that a ransom had been paid for his release, but the suspicions have been impossible to verify. But last week a disagreement between the government of Holland and the respected international medical charity “Medecins sans Frontieres” (“Doctors Without Borders”), or MSF, shed new light on the tactics used by kidnappers in post-Soviet Russia to extort ransoms as high as possible. The new revelations also reinforced suspicions over the role played by a shadowy group connected with the Russian secret police. Unfortunately, the revelations will also have the effect of increasing the incentives for potential kidnappers.
On May 28 the Paris daily Le Monde published a dramatic article by Natalie Nougayrède, reporting that the Dutch government had paid a ransom of 1 million euros (about US$1.22 million) for the April 11 release of Arjan Erkel, the MSF employee kidnapped by mysterious gunmen in Dagestan in August of 2002 (see Chechnya Weekly, April 14.) The Dutch authorities and MSF had previously denied, as had the Russian government, that any ransom at all had been paid. The official Russian version was that a “special operation” conducted jointly by the Russian (Federal Security Service) FSB and local Dagestani police had freed Erkel, but independent experts in both Russia and the West had immediately expressed skepticism about that version.
It is now clear that it was indeed a ransom payment and not any “special operation” that secured Erkel’s release. The Dutch Foreign Ministry admitted in a statement responding to the article in Le Monde that it had indeed paid a ransom, though it did not confirm the specific amount. According to the ministry statement, the Paris daily’s article contained “a number of fundamental untruths and inaccuracies,” but the statement failed to specify what those alleged errors were.
According to a June 1 article in the Moscow Times, a source “close” to MSF said that the ransom payment was arranged by the Kremlin. A spokeswoman for the Kremlin’s press service refused to comment.
The May 28 Le Monde article stated: “According to our sources, Dutch officials have threatened, if MSF refuses to repay the million euros, to start a diplomatic initiative with other European governments and with the [European Union] Commission of Brussels to reduce or even cut off the European subsidies which MSF receives for its humanitarian work in Russia. The leadership of MSF sees this threat as a form of blackmail, and at least two directors of the humanitarian organization have raised the possibility of their resigning.” (Translation from the original French by Chechnya Weekly.)
The June 1 Moscow Times article reported that two officials had indeed left the charity in connection with the controversy—MSF Switzerland’s operational director Thomas Nierle and general director Thomas Linde—though, according to the English-language daily, the latter was fired.
In its May 28 response to Le Monde, which it published on its own website, the Dutch Foreign Ministry did not specifically deny that it is threatening to take action against MSF’s European subsidies. It did, however, add more details, stating that the Dutch embassy in Moscow received a message on April 8 “demanding that Doctors Without Borders in Dagestan pay a sum of money within 24 hours to secure Erkel’s release” and that the message “was taken seriously.” According to the Foreign Ministry version, MSF had “some time earlier…deposited an envelope containing cash at the Dutch embassy in Moscow, anticipating the possibility that a ransom might be demanded at short notice.” But that deposit proved too small, and “it was therefore agreed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would advance the outstanding amount and that Doctors Without Borders would reimburse the Ministry as soon as possible.” The Ministry stated that “we…trust that Doctors Without Borders will keep its word and repay the money that was advanced.”
According to a follow-up article in the May 29 issue of Le Monde, MSF denies that it specifically committed itself to repaying 1 million euros to the Dutch government. (Neither the Dutch Foreign Ministry statement nor the articles in Le Monde stated the exact amount of the MSF cash deposit at the embassy in Moscow; if that sum is still in the possession of the Dutch government, presumably it would be set off against the 1-million euro total said to be owed by MSF.) Austen Davis, director of the Dutch section of MSF, stated that the organization would require clarification about the recipients of the ransom payment. He told Le Monde that MSF had received reports that “veterans of the KGB” had received at least some of that payment.
When Erkel was released in April, he publicly thanked one Valentin Velichko of a little-known Russian organization called the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence. Velichko attended the newly freed captive’s April 11 press conference in Moscow. The source for the Moscow Times said that the Dutch government gave the ransom payment to that organization without MSF’s knowledge. Velichko told the Moscow Times that no ransom had been paid to anyone.
Jean-Hervé Bradol, head of the French section of MSF, told Le Monde that the charity had been conducting negotiations with the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence late last year, and had even entered into a contract with the Russian group by which it agreed to pay it an unspecified amount to “contact” Erkel’s kidnappers. (Given the widespread suspicions that the FSB itself was involved in the kidnapping, that contract itself seems very much like a bribe or a ransom payment—but neither Bradol nor Le Monde discussed that point.) But in December 2003, said Bradol, the Russian group “suddenly announced” that the release of Erkel would not be possible: MSF then cut off negotiations with them. “Evidently,” he told Le Monde, “they then went and proposed something else to the Dutch government—something four times more expensive.” He insisted that “only the Dutch government,” not MSF, knows just who received that inflated payment.