Vladimir Ustinov, Russia’s acting prosecutor general, is scheduled to travel to Chechnya today to look into the arrest of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. On January 31, Russian media quoted Ustinov as saying that Babitsky would remain in custody for another week, but the Prosecutor General’s Office did not confirm this (Russian agencies, January 31; Associated Press, February 1).
Jeffrey Trimble, Radio Liberty’s program director, and Savik Schuster, who heads the station’s Moscow bureau, met yesterday with Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is Acting President Vladimir Putin’s aide in charge of Chechnya information policy, to discuss the situation surrounding Babitsky. According to some reports, the correspondent has been charged both with having had improper accreditation and with participating in an “illegal armed formation”–a term the Russian authorities use to describe the Chechen rebels. In an interview following the meeting, Trimble said that he was told that Babitsky had been detained by Russian forces on January 18 and had subsequently denied having participated in any military actions. Trimble said that he could, with “100 percent” certainty, rule out the possibility Babitsky had participated in any actions carried out by “illegal armed formations” in Chechnya (Russian agencies, Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 31).
Radio Liberty reported yesterday that Babitsky was being held in a basement in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan which had earlier been used by Arbi Baraev, a notorious rebel leader accused of kidnapping a large number of people for ransom and later killing many of them. (Baraev was reported to have been killed earlier this month, but the report proved false: He was featured alive in footage shown on NTV television earlier this week.) Radio Liberty also cited unconfirmed reports that force may have been used against Babitsky during his detention (Radio Liberty, January 31). Babitsky aroused the ire of the Russian authorities earlier this year by reporting from the rebel side in Chechnya and taking video footage showing dead and captured Russian soldiers. This footage was later broadcast on NTV television.
Meanwhile, journalists at Radio Ekho Moskvy released a statement yesterday calling Babitsky’s arrest a violation of the Russian constitutional right to receive complete and accurate information. The statement noted that Babitsky was arrested secretly and that no word on what had happened to him was released for several days (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 31). A group of human rights activists have written an open letter to Putin demanding Babitsky’s release. The letter’s signatories include Ludmilla Alexeeva of the Moscow Helsinki group, Oleg Orlov of Memorial, Maria Kirbasova of the Committee for Soldier’s Mothers and Sergei Grigoryants of the Glasnost Foundation (Segodnya, February 1). A newspaper wrote today that Babitsky’s detention is part of a broader pattern of pressure against journalists from Russia’s “power structures.” The paper claimed that the Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry have created special sub-units whose task is to keep track of who writes what in the press and what their sources are. The paper claimed the Babitsky case shows the authorities are ready to use the “state punitive apparatus” and “kompromat” (compromising materials) against journalists (Segodnya, February 1).
PORTENTS OF THE MOSCOW SUMMIT.