Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 32

Acting President Vladimir Putin broke a notable silence today in telling reporters that he has ordered Russia’s special services to ensure the preservation of the “life, health and security” of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. Putin pointed out that he was not talking about his “personal participation” in the situation involving the correspondent, but did say that he is in constant contact with the Prosecutor General’s Office, which, he said, is in charge of the Babitsky affair (Russian agencies, February 15).

Putin’s comments would seem to be his first attempt to answer the growing concern in the West over Babitsky’s fate and the growing chorus of criticism of the Russian government’s actions toward the correspondent. Earlier this month, Russian officials claimed that Babitsky, whom Russian forces detained in Chechnya in mid-January for not having proper journalistic accreditation, had agreed to be “exchanged” to unnamed Chechen rebels in return for Russian POWs. Russian officials have subsequently claimed that Babitsky is “alive and well” with Chechen rebels in the southern part of the breakaway republic, while Radio Liberty has cited eyewitness reports that the correspondent was being held by Russian security forces in Gudermes, Chechnya and had been severely beaten.

It is not clear, however, that Babitsky’s “life, health and security” is foremost in the minds of Russian prosecutors and other officials. Russian agencies yesterday quoted sources in the Prosecutor General’s Office as saying that the office has received “new information” allegedly showing that Babitsky had “cooperated” with Chechen rebels. The same sources said if the correspondent did not “voluntarily” appear for questioning, he would become the object of a manhunt both in Russia and abroad, using Interpol, the international police agency (Russian agencies, February 14). While the Russian authorities say that he willingly went over to the Chechen side, neither Babitsky’s wife in Moscow nor his colleagues in Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau have heard from him since mid-January. If Babitsky is being held against his will, it is hard to see how he could appear in Moscow for questioning.

What seems more clear is that the Russian authorities are trying to build a case against Babitsky for allegedly aiding or supporting the Chechen rebels and thereby, in essence, committing treason and/or espionage. During a closed session of the State Duma on February 11, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, the Russian government official who oversees Chechen affairs, reportedly showed deputies photographs allegedly taken by Babitsky of dead Russian soldiers who allegedly had just been tortured by a Chechen field commander. According to the Russian authorities, the negatives were found on Babitsky when he was detained. After the Duma session, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who heads one of the Duma’s pro-Kremlin factions, said that the officials’ presentation showed that Babitsky was alive among “the field commanders” and was “continuing to commit crimes.” The same day, the Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that Babitsky had given the Chechen rebels information concerning the location of Russian troops in Chechnya. In an interview recorded on February 12, Interior Minister Rushailo showed some of the photographs allegedly taken of Russian soldiers who allegedly had been tortured to death by a Chechen rebel commander. However, Yuri Bagrov, a freelance correspondent for the Associated Press, subsequently told Radio Liberty that he had shot the photographs and had asked Babitsky to take the role of film to Moscow to be developed. While in Moscow, Babitsky apparently gave the film to his wife to be developed and the Federal Security Service subsequently seized the roll of film (Russian agencies, February 11, 14; RTR, Radio Liberty, February 13).

The Glasnost Foundation, headed by Sergei Grigoryants, announced yesterday that it has filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office against Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s point man on Chechnya, for allegedly falsifying evidence and participating in kidnapping. Grigoryants has claimed that a video clip allegedly showing Babitsky being exchanged to Chechen rebels for Russian POWs, which was taken by the Federal Security Service, was faked. Likewise, Mario Corti, the head of Radio Liberty’s Russian service, claimed yesterday to have reliable information showing that “the so-called exchange of Babitsky” was faked (Russian agencies, February 14). Over the weekend, Interior Minister Rushailo admitted that Interior Ministry officials in Chechnya oversaw Babitsky’s “exchange.” Rushailo did not name exactly which officials were in charge of the operation (RTR, February 13). Meanwhile, Babitsky’s wife Lyudmila filed a missing persons report on her husband yesterday at the Interior Ministry’s Moscow branch (Radio Liberty, February 14).