The Putin administration’s effort to extradite Akhmed Zakaev–an emissary of Aslan Maskhadov–from the United Kingdom suffered another defeat this month when one of the Kremlin’s principal witnesses undermined an accusation previously attributed to him. On July 10 Father Filipp Zhigulin, who was kidnapped seven years ago in Chechnya, told the British court that he “never directly accused Zakaev of that crime.” Father Zhigulin was speaking under cross examination by Zakaev’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald.
According to an account by correspondent Anna Politkovskaya published in the July 14 issue of Novaya gazeta, Fitzgerald then pressed the prosecution witness: “You are confirming that you did not say that Zakaev bears responsibility for your kidnapping?” [Note that this and other quotations from the proceedings are back-translations into English from Politkovskaya’s Russian language article.] The priest said, “I confirm that.”
For Politkovskaya this was the high point of five hours of cross examination of this one witness. Father Filipp described how he first met Zakaev during peace negotiations in 1995, then visited him twice in January of 1996 in an effort to attain the release of a recently kidnapped Russian. After the second of these visits Father Filipp was himself seized on the way back to Grozny; among his kidnappers was a young man whom he had met in Zakaev’s home. One of his guards later told him, “Well, so he [Zakaev] brought you here!” On the next day the priest was taken out and put into a car; five steps away he saw Zakaev. Years later he and Zakaev met again, in Siberia. According to Father Filipp, Zakaev told him “I am not to blame, they forced me to do that.”
Father Filipp’s narrative, if true, is quite damaging to Zakaev. But a flaw in the priest’s account is that he apparently did not share it with anybody until the fall of 2002, when the Russian government began its attempts to extradite Zakaev from Denmark. Immediately after Father Filipp’s release in 1996 he was questioned by the Russian security organs, by the human rights group “Memorial,” and also by various independent journalists. There exists no record of his having expressed any suspicions of Zakaev at that time. By the priest’s own admission at this month’s court hearing, he himself does not remember having expressed any such suspicions until last fall. Asked by defense lawyer Fitzgerald, “Do you suspect Zakaev?” he answered (according to Politkovskaya), “No. Those are emotions, not facts.”
After his formal testimony, wrote Politkovskaya, Father Filipp summed up the situation as follows: “I think that the truth about this will never be known.”