Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 9

The Federal Security Service’s (FSB) February 20 detention of an award-winning Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who had been covering the war in Chechnya for the pro-democracy weekly Novaya Gazeta, has generated a great deal of publicity in Russia. The background to her three-day detention was provided by Politkovskaya in an article appearing in the February 26 issue of Novaya Gazeta: “Collective complaints had arrived at the editorial board,” she wrote, “from ninety families living in several villages of Vedeno District in Chechnya-Makhety, Tovzeni, Sel’mentauzen and Khatuni. The text was unprecedented: Several hundred persons were begging us to assist their immediate removal to anywhere in Russia beyond the borders of Chechnya.”

The stated reasons for this appeal, Politkovskaya continued, were: “The constant hunger, the unbearable cold, the full disconnectedness from life, the absence of any doctors and no ties whatever with the outside world. And a special point: the harsh punitive raids being conducted on those population points by forces of the military quartered on the edge of the village of Khatuni.”

Politkovskaya had been in contact with the newly appointed prime minister of Chechnya, Stanislav Il’yasov, whom she had recently interviewed, concerning the situation in Makhety and other mountain villages. Il’yasov had “promised her all support and even expressed a willingness to accompany her on her travels” (Kommersant, February 22). Originally Politkovskaya had planned to visit the village on Monday, February 19, but Il’yasov had failed to appear. She then drove to the remote village alone, accompanied by a Chechen taxi driver. Representatives of the Chechen families who had written the appeal were waiting there for her (Segodnya, February 22).

After conversing at length with the villagers (she summarizes their words in her article in the February 26 Novaya Gazeta), Politkovskaya decided to learn the federal side of the story and had her driver take her to the nearby hamlet of Khatuni, where the Russian 45th and 119th paratroop regiments were quartered. It was during the course of this visit that she was detained by the FSB. Quick thinking and decisive action by Politkovskaya’s fellow journalist on the staff of Novaya Gazeta, retired major in the military Vyacheslav Izmailov, ensured that her case almost immediately attracted broad attention in Russia. On Wednesday morning, February 21, Izmailov had received information concerning Politkovskaya’s detention. Immediately he notified the apparatus of the spokesman of the president for issues relating to Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as well as the press service of the FSB.

At the FSB, they informed Izmailov that “they possessed no information concerning the fate of Politkovskaya” (Segodnya, February 22). In the apparatus of Yastrzhembsky, on the other hand, they told Izmailov on that they were “aware of the detaining of Politkovskaya. However, when asked to undertake all measures to free the journalist, they answered that Politkovskaya ‘is behaving herself badly.'” Presidential aide Yastrzhembsky went on to note that Politkovskaya did have official Russian government accreditation to work in Chechnya. But, he went on, “she arrived in Chechnya from Mozdok [North Ossetia] in a taxi and did not register at one of the press centers of the Combined Group of Forces in Mozdok or in Khankala, which is by itself a violation of the rules of work of a journalist” (Lenta.ru, 21 February).

A spokesman for the Russian military, Konstantin Kukharenko, told NTV on February 21 that Politkovskaya had arrived at the paratroop base illegally. “As a journalist,” he said, “she broke the accreditation rules imposed by the military command.” According to Kukharenko, Politkovskaya had also gone on a “hunger strike to protest against her arrest” (Agence France Presse, February 21). Major Izmailov of Novaya Gazeta reported that he had discovered that the local military units in Khatuni had failed to report the detention of Politkovskaya to their superiors “until we raised a hubbub” (Segodnya, February 22).

Throughout February 21, the alarm raised by Major Izmailov continued to have ripple effects. The Russian PEN Center, to take one example, in a statement carried by the Interfax News Agency called Politkovskaya’s detention “a blatant violation of the constitution, laws regulating the media and a journalist’s right to fulfill his professional obligations.” PEN demanded Politkovskaya’s immediate release (Moscow Times, February 22).

Apparently responding to the publicity, the military commandant of Chechnya, General Ivan Babichev, affirmed to the Interfax News Agency that the main military command had “had nothing to do” with Politkovskaya’s detention. “I gave the order,” he said, “to urgently sort things out and release the journalist” (Moscow Times, February 22).

In an article on the journalist’s detention, provocatively entitled “They Did Not Have Time to Execute Politkovskaya,” the online daily Gazeta.ru reported that she had been flown by helicopter at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 22 from Khatuni to Khankala, the military base located outside of Djohar. “They then interrogated her for three hours at the military procuracy.” Vsevolod Chernov, the chief pro-Moscow procurator of Chechnya hurriedly arrived at the base. In Moscow, Russian Procurator General Ustinov announced that he was “taking the investigation of the incident under his personal control and that he had ordered Procurator Chernov to establish the truth and punish all those responsible for infringing the law” (Gazeta.ru, February 22).

After a three-hour interrogation at Khankala, Politkovskaya came out to speak to a group of journalists who, alerted by the publicity generated by her colleague Izmailov, were waiting to speak to her at the military base. It should be noted that this was the first opportunity that Politkovskaya had to present her own version of events.

In her comments to reporters, Politkovskaya related that when she had arrived at the regiment, she had shown the paratroopers her documents–accreditation from the government Rosinformtsentr and an identification card issued by the military command–and had asked to talk with the regiment’s political officer. He was absent, but the regimental commander had agreed to receive her. “We discussed absolutely everything,” Politkovskaya related, “and he had no grievances against me.” He even advised her on how best to get to Gudermes, where she intended to have a meeting with Premier Il’yasov (Lenta.ru, February 22).

Two minutes after saying farewell to the regimental commander, Politkovskaya recalls in the February 26 issue of Novaya Gazeta, she was taken into custody by the FSB, who treated her in radically different fashion. For over an hour she was left to stand in a field. Then an armored vehicle pulled up. “They seized me, shoved me with their rifle butts and took me away. ‘Your documents are false,’ they said. ‘Your Yastrzhembsky is a toady of Basaev, and you are a woman [guerilla] fighter.'” There then ensued, Politkovskaya remembers, “many hours of interrogation. The young officers, working in relays, did not introduce themselves and only insinuated that they were from the FSB and that Putin was their commander.”

Hours later, Politkovskaya writes, when it had become completely dark, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB checked his watch and then said to her: “Let’s go. I’m going to execute you.'” He then led her off into the darkness, at which point a Grad missile launcher began firing. This entire episode was presumably a sadistic joke on the part of the FSB officer. In her recent book on the war in Chechnya, entitled Chienne de Guerre (Paris, 2000, pp. 26-29), French journalist Anne Nivat describes a remarkably similar sadistic incident which was arranged for her by the FSB.

In the opinion of Politkovskaya’s colleague, Major Izmailov, “Politkovskaya was effectively tortured by an employee of the Special Department, that is, the FSB. He probably communicated with his higher-ups, some dunderheaded general” (Gazeta.ru, February 22). The commander of Russian paratroopers, General Shpak, told Izmailov by telephone, “My people could not behave like that.” Commenting on the FSB officer who had led her out into the darkness, Politkovskaya told the journalists at Khankala: “I consider that these people who crossed my path are simply not very healthy psychologically, as a result of the conditions in which they find themselves” (Lenta.ru, February 22).

An official spokesman for the FSB, General Aleksandr Zdanovich, angrily criticized Politkovskaya’s account on February 22 as being “from the realm of fairy tales,” and he assailed “these raving ideas that she had experienced certain difficulties and that they had tried to put something in her food” (Gazeta.ru and Lenta.ru, February 22). The latter comment was probably a reference to the hunger strike which the journalist had declared.

In her article in the February 26 Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya relates that after the mock-execution she was taken to a bath and told: “This is a bath. Undress.” She was being asked to bathe in the presence of an FSB officer. She adamantly refused to do so. She was then incarcerated in an isolated bunker, where she was kept until her release on February 22, when she was flown by helicopter to Khankala. Upon her arrival in Khankala, Politkovskaya writes, military procurators literally pulled her away from the FSB officers accompanying her. “I am extremely grateful to them for that,” she adds. While speaking to the procurators, she wrote out an official complaint concerning her treatment in Khatuni.

On Friday morning, February 23, Politkovskaya was flown from Khankala to Mozdok in North Ossetia. Arrived there, she was met by members of the pro-Moscow Chechen government and by Il’yasov in person, who made sure that she was “quickly transferred to Pyatigorsk,” whence she was able to fly directly on to Moscow. Upon her arrival in Moscow, Politkovskaya declared that at the Khatuni paratroop base “she had seen a real filtration camp, one of the most cruel in Chechnya: There in six-meter-deep pits they are holding captured Chechens, many of whom had been seized only to get a ransom. According to Politkovskaya, the commander of the regiment had admitted to her that he had dug the pits for the disposal of garbage but that, at the orders of the commander of the Combined Group of Forces, General Baranov, he had begun to place prisoners there.” It was against such “outrages,” she noted, that villagers living in Makhety and other settlements near the military base had originally complained (Gazeta.ru, February 26).

Commenting on the Politkovskaya case, journalist Ol’ga Allenova wrote in Kommersant (February 22): “De facto every journalist working in Chechnya has had conflicts with the federals. It is impossible to avoid such conflicts. The FSB, for example, see in each journalist a person suspected of espionage and of abetting the rebels.” And she went on to underline: “The easiest way to attract the anger of the federals is to move about the republic independently.”