Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 19

The family of the late Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov has requested political asylum in Finland. The Associated Press on May 9 quoted officials in the office of Finnish President Tarja Halonen as confirming that it had received a letter from Maskhadov’s widow, Kusama, their son Anzor and daughter Fatima, appealing for asylum on humanitarian grounds. The AP reported that in the letter, which was dated May 2 and sent from Baku, Azerbaijan, Anzor Maskhadov said the family felt threatened and that officials in Grozny had refused to renew their passports or travel documents. “We believe our life to be in danger here. Azerbaijan is in close proximity to Russia, and we have received threatening phone calls,” the letter stated. Anzor told the AP in an interview in Baku that he feared for the lives of his family. “There is the risk that we could be caught or killed, as has happened with some Chechens living in other countries,” he said. “There have been threatening calls that ‘they will get to us.’ I would rather be in the Caucasus, closer to my homeland, but circumstances are forcing us to take this step.”

Finnish immigration officials, however, told the Associated Press that asylum could not be applied for from outside the country. “Asylum requests can only be made in Finland on arrival at a passport control point, or later, once the person is in the country,” Esko Repo of Finland’s Directorate of Immigration told the news agency. RIA Novosti on May 9 quoted the press service of Finland’s Interior Ministry as saying that the Maskhadovs’ request for political asylum would be handled by the ministry’s foreigners’ department according to the standard procedure. That department’s press service told RIA Novosti that the asylum request could take up to eight months to process but that on average such requests took four-and-a-half months to process.

Finnish opposition Conservative Party lawmaker Kimmo Sasi told the AP that Finland should grant Maskhadov’s family political asylum, at least temporarily, given that this would be politically “less sensitive” and less costly. “If Maskhadov’s family arrives, we must not turn them away at the border without properly assessing their needs,” Sasi said.

As the news agency noted, the 114,000 foreigners in Finland comprise some two percent of its population of 5.2 million—the smallest percentage of foreigners in any west European country. According to the AP, Finland’s refugee intake is strictly controlled and mostly channeled through UN agencies.

Novye izvestia reported on May 11 that the Maskhadovs’ request for political asylum in Finland is complicated by the tensions that arose between Helsinki and Moscow several years ago over the presence in Finland of a server for the separatist Kavkazcenter website. Finnish police shut down the server, run by Finnish businessman Mikael Sturshe, in October 2004, after which Sturshe began hosting the server in Sweden and vowed to start it up again in Finland (see Chechnya Weekly, November 24, 2004 and May 4, 2005; see also item below).

Interfax on May 9 quoted Isa Akhyadov, coordinator for the World Chechen Congress, as telling reporters in Baku that the group was seeking asylum in the West for the Maskhadov family. “Maskhadov’s family needs protection, there is a threat to their lives, and so we are sending out appeals all around [for them] to receive asylum in a

Western country,” Akhyadov said. “The situation in Azerbaijan is very complicated, and the circle is getting tighter around Maskhadov’s family. We have been intensively trying to evacuate the family outside the Commonwealth of Independent States, but unfortunately these attempts have produced no results. It is a political issue, one that must be dealt with not by the migration services but by the leaderships of countries. It is not merely a matter of granting the right of entry or exit. Maskhadov’s family needs security guarantees.” Akhyadov said the Congress planned to send asylum appeals to the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

Ekho Moskvy reported on May 9 that “the reason for the Maskhadov family’s fears” in Azerbaijan is “not absolutely clear,” but noted that less than a month earlier an Azerbaijani court had found a group of young people guilty of organizing “illegal armed formations” to fight alongside the Chechen separatists and handed down prison sentences ranging from 5 years to life. According to the radio station, over the last few years more than 100 people in Azerbaijan have been convicted of taking part in combat operations in Chechnya. Still, Ekho Moskvy noted that despite the crackdown, the Chechen diaspora in Azerbaijan in March of this year marked the first anniversary of Aslan Maskhadov’s death. It also noted that an Azerbaijani human rights activist will represent the interests of the Maskhadov family at the European Court of Human Rights, where they are asking to be declared illegal the Russian special services’ refusal to hand over Maskhadov’s body to them. Russian prosecutors have said that after Maskhadov was killed in March 2005, his body was buried secretly, in line with federal law barring the release of bodies of people considered terrorists to relatives.