Even if one assumes the guilt of the two Russian intelligence officers now standing trial for the February assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, much of that episode remains mysterious. Why did the alleged assassins linger in Qatar after the killing rather than immediately making good their escape? Indeed, why did these professional intelligence officers carry out the assassination themselves rather than contracting the job to some third-party hit man without any traceable connection to the Russian government?
An April 29 article by Orkhan Dzhemal in Novaya gazeta tried to shed at least some light on these questions. Dzhemal noted that according to accepted Soviet and Russian practice: “Officers must never conduct such operations. Before such actions were conducted by agents or people who had nothing to do with the special services. As a rule, such operations were conducted by Palestinian Marxists in the Middle East. Hundreds of them were trained in the USSR on firing ranges in Balashikha (the Moscow region), near Astrakhan and in the Crimea. They were enlisted by the KGB, which had compromising materials against such people.”
From his discussions with sources in Russian security agencies, Dzhemal concluded that: “The Russian officers prepared the operation and reported that they had found a person who would commit the murder. They received money to pay him but then something went wrong. They finally decided to murder Yandarbiev themselves. It is possible that their agent refused to do it. It cannot be ruled out that they simply wanted to take the money for themselves.”
Meanwhile, the two Russian defendants in Qatar have been claiming that one of the prosecution witnesses had been directly involved in torturing them during their pre-trial interrogation. When a certain “Colonel Dowi” appeared before the court last week to testify as a prosecution witness, they said that they recognized him immediately as the very same person who had beaten them about their heads and harried them with specially trained dogs during the first days of their detention.
According to their defense attorney from Moscow, Dmitry Afanasiev (as reported by the Utro.ru website on April 28), the defendants tried to make an official statement about the alleged torturer to the judge – but the latter told them to wait until the colonel had finished giving evidence. When they tried again on the next day, however, the judge said that their accusations about torture would be heard only at the end of the trial – or at least that is the account provided by the press secretary of Afanasiev’s law firm.
Afanasiev told journalists that in addition to beatings and the use of dogs, Qatar had subjected his clients to torture during the first four days after their arrest by keeping them in a cell where they were not allowed to sit down and where the light was never turned off, by forcibly depriving them of sleep, and by subjecting them to low-frequency sounds. He said that “if the question of torture does not receive proper consideration in the Qatar trial, I shall recommend to the defendants that they file their own criminal case against Colonel Dowi.” The Russian lawyer cited the 1984 New York convention against torture, of which both Russia and Qatar are signatories.
It is difficult both to verify independently the opposing sides’ versions of what happened in court, since the trial is closed to the public – and difficult even to determine just why it is closed to the public. According to an April 27 report on the Grani.ru website, citing a report on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, it was the Russian embassy in Qatar that requested a closed trial. A spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office in Qatar told Kommersant that the prosecution would welcome a trial open to public observers.
The presiding judge said that the defense had insisted on keeping the trial closed. But defense lawyer Afanasiev contradicted that statement, declaring that he and his colleagues had had nothing to do with the decision to close the trial from public observation. Yandarbiev’s widow also reportedly told journalists that she would prefer that the trial be open.
Usman Ferzauli, a diplomat from Chechnya’s underground Maskhadov government who was described by the Gzt.ru website on April 27 as a “consultant” to Yandarbiev’s widow, suggested to that website another possible scenario under which Qatar might officially pardon the two Russian defendants after formally finding them guilty. “Sharia laws occupy far from the last place in the legal code of Qatar,” he said, “and so according to Qatar’s laws the emir can issue a pardon only if he receives the consent of the murder victim’s relatives.” Yandarbiev’s widow might thus have the deciding voice over the fate of the accused, he suggested.