Alarm is growing over the fate of Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty correspondent detained by Russian forces in Chechnya some two weeks ago. On February 2, the radio station and Russian media reported that Babitsky had been freed from a “filtration point”–detention centers set up by Russian security forces to hold suspected Chechen rebels–and would be transferred to Mozdok, North Ossetia, and then to Moscow, after he had signed an agreement not to leave the city without the permission of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Babitsky, a Russian citizen, was reportedly detained in mid-January while leaving the Chechen capital for inadequate journalistic accreditation and on suspicion of having joined an “illegal armed formation”–Moscow’s bureaucratic legal term for Chechen rebel groups.
However, in a bizarre twist, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s point-man on Chechnya, announced yesterday that Babitsky had been exchanged for three Russian POWs being held by the Chechen rebels. During a press conference, Yastrzhembsky said that the “exchange” had taken place at 3:05 PM, Moscow time, on January 3, at a crossroads between the Chechen towns of Argun and Shali. The exchange was made, he said, in response to a January 30 written request from a rebel field commander named Said Usakhodzhaev. The alleged request describes Babitsky as having “stood shoulder to shoulder with us, protecting the interests of the Chechen people” (Kommersant, February 4). Yastrzhembsky held up a document with Babitsky’s putative signature, in which the journalist allegedly agreed to the exchange but insisted that in doing so, he was not admitting any guilt. Yastrzhembsky also said that with the exchange, the Russian government would no longer take responsibility for Babitsky’s well-being. Later in the day, Yastrzhembsky released a statement in which he said that two, not three, Russian POWs had been exchanged for Babitsky, and promising that a video of the exchange would be given to the mass media (Russian agencies, February 3).
That video was shown today on the RTR and NTV television channels. Lasting only a minute or two, it showed Babitsky being accompanied from a vehicle by uniformed men along a dirt road toward another group of men, and what appeared to be one of the Russian POWs being accompanied by uniformed men in ski-masks in the opposite direction. There was no way of ascertaining whether those in the ski-masks were Chechen fighters (NTV, February 4). The situation was made even murkier by the fact that Radio Liberty yesterday quoted Vakha Arsanov, Chechnya’s former vice president, as saying that no one in Chechnya had ever heard of a field commander named Usakhodzhaev. On the other hand, Sharip Yusupov, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s representative in Moscow, said that the exchange had taken place, but on February 2, not February 3. Yusupov claimed that Babitsky “understood that they would kill him” in the filtration point where he was being held, and that Babitsky was now in Chechnya “voluntarily” (Moscow Times, February 4).
Be that as it may, neither Babitsky’s wife nor his colleagues at Radio Liberty nor his lawyer Genri Reznik have heard from him in the nearly twenty-four hours since the exchange supposedly took place. Reznik and others, including Savik Shuster, head of Radio Liberty’s Moscow office, have openly expressed fears that Babitsky is no longer alive (Radio Liberty, February 3). The Glasnost Protection Fund released an appeal yesterday, which read, in part: “This whole dark and murky story, reminiscent of an operation by professional special propagandists, suggests that we have before us not simply disinformation, but a planned provocation that raises the main question–is Andrei alive?” Another ominous sign is that Russia’s various “power ministries” have denied any involvement with Babitsky’s exchange. The Interior Ministry yesterday named the Federal Security Service (FSB) as being in charge of the operation, the FSB pointed to the Prosecutor General’s Office, while Acting Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov denied any knowledge of the exchange, saying it was carried out by the special services. Today FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich again denied that his service played any part in the exchange (NTV, February 4). This, however, cannot be completely true, given that the video footage was identified as being shot by the FSB, meaning that at least the cameraman was involved.
Prior to yesterday’s exchange, Babitsky had not been formally charged with a crime. His reports for Radio Liberty from the Chechen side of the fight for the Chechen capital, along with video footage he took, which included shots of dead Russian soldiers and civilians hiding in basements, reportedly angered the Kremlin.
FSB “WATCHING” FOR MEDIA AND FOREIGN INTERFERENCE IN CHECHEN CONFLICT.