Umar Khambiev, who was Chechnya’s health minister under Aslan Maskhadov and subsequently represented the government of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) abroad, arrived on March 13 in Italy – where, Gazeta reported on March 14, he plans to seek political asylum. According to the newspaper, Khambiev was met at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport by several members of the Italian parliament who belong to the Transnational Radical Party, including the party’s secretary Rita Bernardini. In a joint press conference at the Italian parliament with Marco Pannella, leader of the Transnational Radical Party and a member of the European Parliament, Khambiev referred to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who met with President Vladimir Putin during the Russian leader’s two-day visit to Italy on March 13-14. “The first thing that I want to consult with Prodi about is a request to grant me political asylum,” Khambiev said. He also called on Italian politicians, “to speak the truth about that which concerns the situation and in particular the observance of human rights.” RIA Novosti quoted the Italian Foreign Ministry as saying it had no information about whether Khambiev planned to ask for political asylum in Italy.
Newsru.com, citing RIA Novosti, reported on March 14 that during a joint press conference that day with Prodi in Bari, a city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, Putin was asked about Khambiev’s arrival in Italy and plans to ask for political asylum in Italy. “There will always be a place for the former health minister of Chechnya in Chechnya if he wants to return to peaceful life,” Putin said, adding that Russia’s parliament had taken, “several decisions concerning amnesties for those who want to return to peaceful life.” According to Newsru.com, Putin tried once again to convince journalists that it is possible to return to Chechnya without fear. “There are many problems in Chechnya, but, as you know, practically all domestic democratic procedures have been completed there.” As an example of this, Putin pointed to Chechnya’s parliament, in which, he said, “all of Chechnya’s political forces are represented, including people who took up arms against the federal authorities, [and] even the former defense minister in Maskhadov’s government.” Putin here was referring to Umar Khambiev’s brother Magomed, who returned to Chechnya in March 2004 and is now a member of the republic’s parliament. The separatists claim Magomed Khambiev was forced to surrender after pro-Moscow security forces there seized as many as 40 of his relatives (see Chechnya Weekly, March 17, 2004; September 28, 2006).
Meanwhile, Ziad Sabsabi, Chechnya’s ambassador plenipotentiary in Moscow, said that work could be found for Umar Khambiev in Chechnya, given that he is, “a good doctor who represents no political forces of any kind.” Sabsabi said Khambiev, “could work in the bodies of power of the Chechen republic,” as the republic’s “chief doctor” or elsewhere in the republic’s health care system. He also said Khambiev had gone over to the separatist side because he is a “creative” person who was “deceived,” and that he must now decide which side he is on. On March 15, Kommersant quoted Chechnya’s chief prosecutor, Valery Kuznetsov, as saying of Umar Khambiev, “We have no information about his participation in the illegal armed formations; correspondingly, there are no criminal cases against him.”
Oleg Orlov, the head of the Memorial human rights center, for his part, told Interfax that his group had no information that Khambiev was involved in any human rights violations in Chechnya. “In my opinion, Umar Khambiev was not tarnished by anything,” Orlov said. “In any case, we don’t know of any cases of human rights violations on his part, which I cannot say about his brother, Magomed Khambiev, who is currently a parliamentarian in Chechnya, and in the past was defense minister of Ichkeria.”