By Zaira Abdullaev
The trial in the case of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky came to an end on October 6 in the Dagestan capital. The circumstances of the case have not yet been fully explained. In January 2000 Andrei Babitsky left for Chechnya, was in Djohar [Grozny] during the battle for the city, and was arrested by Russian soldiers in mid January, official sources indicate, in territory controlled by Chechen fighters. For two days he was held in a special vehicle (AvtoZak) in Khankala, and was then taken to Chernokozovo detention center where a representative of the presidential commission for the exchange of prisoners of war, internees and missing persons visited him.
The official did not introduce himself (from Babitsky’s description, one witness–the army correspondent for Novaya gazeta, Vyacheslav Ismailov–identified him in court as Skoptsov, a member of this commission, though he does not have any authority with regard to exchanges of prisoners), but offered to exchange Babitsky for three Russian prisoners of war. It was said that the journalist agreed “for humanitarian reasons.” He was transferred to Gudermes, where the exchange, seen by thousands on television, took place. At the last minute the journalist refused to go ahead with it. “I thought the people in masks and the way they conducted the discussion was strange, and it is not the done thing in Chechnya to grab someone by the elbow. This was the first time it occurred to me that the security services might be involved in the operation,” said the journalist.
In Moscow after his release, Babitsky managed to establish that the field commander Turpal-Ali Atgeriev, in whose name the exchange took place, did not in fact have anything to do with it, and the Dagestani politician Magomed Khachilaev, whom Skoptsov had referred to as the sponsor of the exchange, said that he “had been misled.”
Be that as it may, the exchange took place, and the Radio Liberty journalist spent the next two weeks under guard in the Chechen village of Avtury, in the house of the younger brother of Chechen politician Adam Deniev. This all came out later, as did the fact that the younger Deniev–who was shot dead by a fellow-villager on October 5 this year in Moscow–was head of the FSB division in Chechnya.
On February 23 Andrei Babitsky was taken to Dagestan in the trunk of a car; he was driven along the main road, and according to the journalist they were not stopped or searched once, which he thinks could only have been because they had a special pass. Babitsky recognized one of those who was with him at the time from a photograph in Segodnya newspaper. Amongst a group of people gathered around the Chechen mufti Akhmed Kadyrov there was a man identified by Dagestani journalists at the hearings as an FSB employee by the name of Kamil. Local reporters managed to find him and got permission to talk to him, but at the last minute the FSB man categorically refused to meet them.
In Makhachkala Andrei was given two passports, an ordinary one in the name of Ali Isa-ogly Musaev, and one for foreign travel in the name of Kirill Burov, which those accompanying him explained was necessary in order to get the journalist into Azerbaijan. Babitsky threw this passport away near the customs post. On February 25 he was arrested in Makhachkala in possession of the passport in the name of Musaev, and was subsequently charged under article 327 of the Russian Criminal Code–“knowingly using a false document.”
On February 24 Babitsky had been taken to the Dagestan-Azerbaijan border, but it transpired that in “his” passport there was no stamp indicating that he was a Russian citizen. His escorts left him with the man who was supposed to take him to Baku. The journalist said that he had a long discussion with his guide and convinced him that he did not want to leave Russia. He then hailed a passing car and headed for Makhachkala.
On the morning of February 25, Andrei telephoned his colleague in Vladikavkaz, Oleg Kusov, and without saying who he was or where he was he asked him to come and see him. Asked by the judge about the wisdom of such intrigues, Babitsky answered that he was afraid of the security services which might try to harm him or his family if they discovered that their planned act of provocation had gone wrong. While waiting for Kusov, the journalist booked a room in the “Dagestan” hotel and popped out for lunch in a nearby cafe, where he was recognized and arrested by some Dagestani policemen. Babitsky was taken to the local interior ministry headquarters, where he spent one night, and then transferred to the city detention center where he spent two days. Following this the journalist flew to Moscow.
Before the trial began, defense counsel Henry Reznik offered the Moscow press controversial forecasts about justice in the provinces. However, both Reznik and the Babitsky support group which arrived from Moscow were pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere in the court–unimpeded access, plenty of spectators, unrestricted contact with the press. “We did not expect such openness,” one of the bosses of Radio Liberty, Savik Shuster, told journalists. “If the trial had taken place in Moscow, journalists probably wouldn’t have been given access.”
Right from the start, the hearings moved beyond the actual charges leveled. Prosecutor Rashidkhan Magomedov kept coming back to the question: Who was hounding Babitsky and why? To which the journalist replied that the Russian authorities were unhappy with his reports from Chechnya: “They said that civilians had been completely evacuated from Grozny before it was stormed. This is untrue, there were thousands of people left. I think that the truth that I was telling about the war provided the reason for the operation to discredit me as a journalist.” Judge Igor Goncharov, however, said he was puzzled that the security services had not been able to finish off what was not a particularly complex job to discredit the journalist. “My explanation for that is the complete chaos in the country, which affects the security services too,” answered Babitsky.
Of the twenty-four witnesses listed, only nine were called. For the prosecution, the most important witness was the manager of the “Dagestan” hotel Patimat Magomedova; for the defense, of most importance was the testimony of Ismailov, Kusov and the head of the Russian interior ministry’s passport and visa information service Vladimir Burov, from whose department a blank passport made out in Musaev’s name was stolen on February 17.
Magomedova’s evidence defined the crime: The presentation of a passport to an official with a particular intent, in this case the intent to obtain a room in a hotel. The defense’s testimony that the journalist was acting out of urgent necessity was not seen as significant. The prosecutor stated that there was nothing to threaten Babitsky in Dagestan. Babitsky answered: “It is difficult to establish the level of actual danger, because in six months the prosecutor general has done nothing to investigate the circumstances of my arrest and exchange. I really want somebody to rebut my testimony with facts and to readdress all the questions to you–who would benefit from this and why? For now all we can do is build on sand, and my words are all we have to describe the situation.” Burov’s evidence raised a skeptical smile–the ministry official could not even name the applicant who had needed a 1975 passport.
The five days of the trial generated great interest among ordinary residents of Makhachkala. When the sentence was pronounced–a fine of one hundred minimum monthly wages (about 8,000 rubles or US$270), rescinded under the amnesty declared on May 26, 2000 in honor of the 55th anniversary of World War Two–most of them called for Babitsky to be declared innocent, with the exception of the chairman of the local human rights organization Russkaya obshchina, Alexander Gistsev. From the very beginning of the trial Gistsev expressed outrage that people were trying to turn an ordinary administrative case into a major political trial, when there were so many other problems in the country.
Commenting on the court’s decision, Reznik said that despite the high degree of professionalism of the judge, nobody had expected to find “a hero on the bench… and the prosecutor general’s office could not allow its efforts to discredit the journalist to crumble completely.” Andrei Babitsky himself said that he viewed this trial as an interim one, and that he planned to seek a reversal of the judgment in the Dagestan supreme court, and then if need be in the Russian Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. He also expressed the hope that Russia’s prosecutor general would actually investigate the case of misuse of official powers in relation to him, and that the case of the mysterious exchange of prisoners and the attempt to drop him in Azerbaijan would be solved.
Zaira Abdullaev a correspondent of the Novoye Delo weekly in Makhachkala, Dagestan.