Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 182

The criminal trial of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky begins today in a court in the Sovietsky district of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. Babitsky is being tried on charges brought by the Russian Interior Ministry’s investigation committee, which has accused the correspondent of using a false passport. Babitsky’s lawyer, Genri Reznik, has said that the defense would focus on the “political character” of the charges against his client, and Babitsky himself has said that he expects to be found guilty. The judge presiding over the case has said it is possible that the Babitsky case will be closed on the basis of an amnesty (Russian agencies, October 1).

The case against Babitsky grew out of a series of incidents which began in January of this year, when Babitsky, Radio Liberty’s correspondent in Chechnya, was arrested in the breakaway republic by Russian forces and held in detention. Both Babitsky’s radio reports and video footage he had taken on the rebel side, which was shown subsequently shown on NTV television, had angered the Russian authorities. At the beginning of February, Babitsky was handed over to unidentified gunmen. Russian officials claimed he had volunteered to be handed over to Chechen rebels in exchange for several Russian prisoners of war, while Babitsky himself subsequently alleged that he was turned over to Adamallah, a pro-Moscow Chechen militia reportedly closely connected to the Federal Security Service (see the Monitor, March 2). According to Babitsky, his new captors after holding him for several weeks, apparently in Chechnya, gave him a false Azerbaijani passport, blindfolded him and drove him in the trunk of a car to the Dagestani-Azerbaijani border, where he was supposed to cross over into Azerbaijan. Unable to cross over, Babitsky said he managed to convince the driver to take him to Makhachkala, where, after several days, he was arrested for using a false passport. Babitsky was detained briefly in the Dagestani capital and then flown to Moscow, where he was allowed to remain outside of jail in return for signing an agreement not to leave Moscow (see the Monitor, March 9). In July, Babitsky was charged with using a false passport and prevented from traveling to a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Bucharest, Romania to accept an award for journalistic heroism. The Russian Interior Ministry later eased and then lifted the travel restrictions on Babitsky at the request of State Duma deputies Yuri Shchekochikin and Sergei Yuzhenkov, and Dmitri Muratov, editor of the bi-weekly newspaper Novaya gazeta (Radio Liberty, July 3, 6, August 8).

The newspaper Izvestia, which has been virtually unreserved in supporting President Vladimir Putin, today ran a negative article about Babitsky. The paper asked, among other things, why Babitsky, upon arriving in Makhachkala, “lived for several days under a false name and even presented [the false passport] to a police patrol” rather than immediately going to the nearest police station to report what had happened to him (Izvestia, October 2). In fact, given the Kafka-esque treatment Babitsky received from representatives of Russia’s “power structures,” it is quite easy to understand why, once he was out of the hands of his various captors, he did not immediately seek out officers from the Russian Interior Ministry’s local branch in the Dagestani capital. In a newspaper interview earlier this year, Putin called Babitsky a “traitor” who had been “working directly” for the Chechen rebels. The interview was one of series made by a group of Russian journalists that were brought together in a book titled “In the First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin.” But while Putin’s comments on Babitsky were published at the time in the newspaper Kommersant, they were excised from the book (see the Monitor, March 17).