Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 23

Score the latest round of the Zakaev extradition case as a win for the defense. The London court hearing, due to resume on June 30, will decide Britain’s response to Russia’s demand for the extradition of Akhmed Zakaev, a key diplomat and spokesman for Chechnya’s separatist government, whom the Kremlin has accused of “terrorism.” (The Kremlin now routinely applies this label to officials of the Maskhadov government.) During the crucial week before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to London, it was the witnesses summoned by Zakaev’s defense attorneys who monopolized the scene. And the cross-questioning of these witnesses was less than aggressive. One source close to the trial, who requested anonymity, predicted to Jamestown that a final decision in the case would come in early July–and that it would be in Zakaev’s favor.

A defense witness, Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial, even suggested that the Kremlin must have decided that it does not want to have Akhmed Zakaev forcibly returned to Russia, or it would not have placed itself in such a no-win game. But few among Russia’s “doves” seem to share that view. Instead, the doves are emphasizing that the extradition process has now turned into something that the Putin administration has elsewhere tried to avoid: A de facto international tribunal sitting in judgment on Putin’s policies in Chechnya.

Cherkasov noted that the Russian procuracy had failed even to present questions to be asked of him and the other defense witnesses. (In accordance with British extradition procedures, the Russian government’s interests are being represented by Queen’s Counsel James Lewis, who is professionally obliged to respect British standards of evidence.) Cherkasov also pointed out that the hearing has enabled him and other human rights advocates to focus attention on three questions that the Kremlin would rather not discuss. First, has there in fact been a war underway in Chechnya, or only a “counter-terrorist operation” as claimed in official propaganda? Second, does Russia now have normal, civilized investigative agencies like those in England–or is there still something “special” about Russia’s police detectives and prosecutors? The third question involves Russia’s courts–are they institutions to which one can hand over an accused person with some reasonable hope that he can expect a fair trial free of government pressure?

Yefim Barban’s account for the weekly Moskovskie novosti observed that the latest stage of the hearing was “overwhelmingly” dominated by the defense. For three days in a row the defense witnesses made their statements with only “rare” and “rather sluggish” questions or challenges from Queen’s Counsel Lewis representing the plaintiff. Lewis’s strategy seemed to be aimed at persuading the court to focus narrowly on procedural questions related to Britain’s extradition law rather than to evaluate the substantive merits of the Russian government’s thirteen specific accusations against Zakaev. Judge Timothy Workman, however, insisted on taking a broader view.

Barban noted that the circumstances placed Lewis as prosecuting attorney “from the very start in a losing position.” Functioning as a middleman between Moscow and the British court, he necessarily was deprived of the “mobility” of the defense team. He had no choice but to send a translation of the court transcript to the Russian procuracy in Moscow and then await its instructions. Moreover, it was naturally harder for him than it would have been for a lawyer from the Russian government to dispute the factual claims of the defense witnesses.

Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta starkly highlighted the awkwardness of Lewis’s position. She wrote that the British attorney had apparently been accustomed from his career previously to being able to rely on the “international solidarity” of prosecutors, to being confident that foreign prosecutors would not try to deceive him, one of their own colleagues. But “as it gradually became clear that the Russian procuracy’s accusations against Zakaev were simply devoid of factual truth, Mr. Lewis’s face noticeably quavered and he increasingly preferred to remain seated and silent.”

A source close to the trial told Jamestown in a June 24 telephone interview that nobody from the Russian procuracy was even present in the courtroom, though an official from the Russian Federation’s embassy in London did attend. This source said that he was also struck by the fact that Russia’s most important state controlled media, such as the ORT television network and the Itar-Tass news agency, had failed to send reporters to cover the hearing. It was as if the Russian authorities had already “written off” the extradition gambit, he said. But this source’s interpretation was more pessimistic than Cherkasov’s. He suggested that the Kremlin’s extradition bid has already achieved its objective by “neutralizing” Zakaev, that is, stigmatizing him in the eyes of domestic Russian opinion so that it will be harder for dovish leaders such as Boris Nemtsov to have contact with him.

Recognizing that he was not prepared to cross-examine the defense witnesses, Lewis requested and was given extra time–until the end of June–to consult with Moscow and prepare his response to the defense.

The Russian procuracy accuses Zakaev of murder and other serious offenses. The defense strategy has been to argue that his alleged offenses are not criminal but political–that Maskhadov and his allies were not engaged in banditry but in a war of secession. Any acts of violence that Zakaev may have committed or abetted, insists the defense, were thus parts of military operations. The defense lawyers pointed out that Moscow accepted Zakaev as a legitimate participant in the negotiations leading up to the 1997 peace agreement between Chechnya and the Russian Federation.

According to British law, a defendant is not subject to extradition once he is classified as a “political criminal.” Hence the importance of points such as that raised by defense witness John Russell of Bradford University, who told the court that Russian soldiers who took part in the first Chechen war have the status of war veterans. British journalist Thomas De Waal testified that the separatist forces’ capture of Grozny in 1996 should be seen not as a bandit raid but as a military counterattack.

Another defense witness, Russian Duma deputy Yuly Rybakov, pointed out that it is still not unusual in Russia for defendants to have confessions beaten out of them with the help of torture. Professor Russell suggested that Zakaev has already been so thoroughly demonized by the Russian media that it would be impossible for him to receive a fair trial in Russia. Also, he could be mysteriously murdered while in captivity. The issue of torture alone might be enough to save Zakaev from extradition: British law forbids extradition to countries where torture of prisoners is practiced.

Cherkasov of Memorial described how a Russian Orthodox priest had personally told him that he had been kidnapped by another Chechen, not by Zakaev as now alleged. This is the same priest who, according to a statement last year from the Russian procuracy, died in Chechnya–but who then turned out to be very much alive.

Duma deputy and leading human rights activist Sergei Kovalev testified that, in his view, the goal of the Russian government’s extradition attempt is to reduce the visibility and influence of those Chechen separatist leaders who support peaceful negotiations rather than terrorism. Ivan Rybkin, former secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, told the court that before beginning the 1997 peace talks, he had asked the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the federal procuracy for background information about all four members of the Chechen delegation. He said that the security agencies did not then claim that any of the four, including Zakaev, had committed crimes.

Though the defense witnesses from Russia generally expressed deep respect for Britain’s legal system in subsequent interviews with the Russian media, deputy Kovalev made one critical observation. He told Moskovskie novosti that he had been struck by the poor quality of the court translator’s work, which forced him to correct the Russian version of the transcript. He was also disappointed that “an important witness from Chechnya” was unable to testify because that witness does not know English, and the court was unable to find someone who could translate from Chechen into English.

The website reported on June 18 that the federal procuracy is indeed now preparing “supplementary materials” on the case to send to the British authorities. Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta wrote that, according to her sources, the cost of the hearing to Russian taxpayers has so far come to more than a million British pounds (about US$1.66 million).