Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 41

Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky was released yesterday from jail in Makhachkala, Dagestan, after which he was taken to a military airport outside the city and put on a special flight to Moscow. He was allowed to return to his home in the Russian capital after signing a pledge not to leave town. Refusing to sign the protocols of the false passport charges against him, Babitsky announced yesterday through his lawyer that he would go on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration. His release late yesterday followed comments from Acting President Vladimir Putin, who said that while he believed Babitsky, in his coverage of events in Chechnya, was trying to “market a certain type of product” rather than simply “cover information,” there was no point in keeping him in jail. Putin said that he had asked Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo “to consider more attentively if there is a need to keep Babitsky in custody,” and said that he didn’t “think this [was] necessary.” The criminal case against Babitsky–for possession of an illegal Azeri passport–has not been dropped. Neither Babitsky’s wife nor his lawyer, both of whom had traveled over the weekend to Makhachkala, were informed of his sudden transfer to Moscow (NTV, Radio Liberty, Russian agencies, February 28).

In interviews early today, the correspondent himself said that his captors–the people to whom he was handed over on February 3, in what Russian government officials insist was a voluntary “exchange” to Chechen rebels in return for Russian POWs–took his passport and other documents, gave him a forged Azeri passport and told him that he would be taken to Azerbaijan. His captors, Babitsky said, took him from where he was being held in Chechnya–he is not certain where–blindfolded him and put him in the trunk of a car, but were not able to get him across the Dagestani border into Azerbaijan. They then handed him over to a local guide, whom he convinced to take him to the Dagestani capital (NTV, Radio Liberty, February 29).

Babitsky also said that the criminal case against him for his alleged participation in “illegal armed formations” (meaning the Chechen rebels)–which was launched following his detention by federal forces in Chechnya in mid-January–had been dropped by the local prosecutor’s office in Chechnya on February 2, the day before the now-infamous “exchange.” It is not clear whether the authorities plan to resurrect those charges. Babitsky said today that he still does not know to whom he was handed over. He also said that he was not tortured during his stay in the Chernokozov filtration camp, which lasted from the time of his detention in mid-January until his “exchange.” He was, however, beaten with truncheons upon his arrival at the Chernokozovo camp–apparently the ritual “welcome” for all who are detained there. He said that he was not beaten seriously, but implied that he had witnessed much more serious torture in Chernokozov, which he referred to as a “concentration camp” run by “sadists.” Babitsky also said that he was flown yesterday to Moscow on an “empty airplane” which he believes was Interior Minister Rushailo’s personal aircraft. Babitsky plans to hold a press conference to discuss in detail his incarceration and issues related to the situation in Chechnya, which he called “monstrous” and a “nightmare.” He has said he believes that a press conference would serve as a “guarantee of security” for him and his family (Radio Liberty, February 29).