A Qatar appeals court on July 29 rejected an appeal by two Russian intelligence agents sentenced to life imprisonment for the February bombing that killed former Chechen separatist president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. The presiding judge, Abdullah al-Saadi, told the court that the appeal was rejected in content and that the June 30 verdict that sentenced Anatoly Bilashkov and Vassily Pokchov to life in prison for Yandarbiyev’s murder was upheld. While the rejection of the appeal is technically final, both defense lawyer Mohsen Dhiab al-Suwaidi and prosecutor Saad Hanif al-Dossari suggested that legislative amendments currently being introduced in Qatar to create a new court above the appeals court that upheld the life sentence could provide the convicted Russian agents with a new avenue to overturn their sentences (Agence France-Presse, July 29). The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that Russia “will continue persistent efforts to return the Russian citizens to their homeland” (RIA Novosti, July 29).
Some experts cited the possibility that Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Halifa Al Thani could pardon the Russian agents. Andrei Yermakov of the A.S. Griboyedov Institute for International Law and Economics cited the case of Edmund Pope, the U.S. citizen accused of espionage in Russia who was sentenced to 20 years in prison but released from jail in December 2000 after receiving a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. “All such actions are decided exclusively by a political agreement,” Yermakov told Gzt.ru. “Whether something like that exists between Russian and Qatar is hard for me to say.”
Still other observers said the most likely scenario is that the convicted intelligence agents will be handed over to Russia to serve out their terms. Ilya Levitov, press secretary for Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasyev and Partners, the Russian law firm that represented the agents, said lawyers would petition for the convicted Russians to be handed over to the Russian authorities based on “the norms of international law and Qatari criminal-procedural law, which envisage such a possibility” (Gzt.ru, July 29). In fact, Kommersant suggested that the Russian and Qatari authorities had some time ago reached an agreement about transferring the agents to Russia. According to the newspaper, the Russian side had even explained to their Qatari counterparts the decision to appeal the life sentences was “strictly an image-dictated move” necessary to soothe Russian public opinion.
Kommersant also reported that Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister who is currently secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, and Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, finalized the deal over the jailed agents in meetings with Qatari officials last week during a visit to Doha, Qatar’s capital. The newspaper reported that Qatar’s new criminal-procedural code, which comes into effect on October 1, allows for the possibility of transferring foreigners convicted of crimes in Qatar back to their homelands. Kommersant quoted a source in Doha who had been directly involved in the trial of the convicted intelligence agents as saying it was possible they would be back in Russia before the end of the year (Kommersant, July 30).
It should be noted that not every observer was convinced that the Russians would either be pardoned by Qatar’s emir or returned to Russia. Contrary to Kommersant, Grani.ru speculated that they were sentenced to life imprisonment in order “to put an end to gossip about some sort of agreement by which the Russians would be pardoned by the emir,” given that, according to the website, persons sentenced in Qatar to life imprisonment, as opposed to those sentenced to death, can appeal for clemency only after they have served 10 years of their sentence. Grani.ru also speculated that the convicted agents, who are currently being kept in relatively comfortable conditions of incarceration, may not be anxious to return to Russia given that they “badly handled” their task of killing Yandarbiyev. “They don’t decorate you for that,” the website wrote (Grani.ru, July 29).
Meanwhile, Leonid Ivashov, a retired general and former head of the Defense Ministry’s department for international cooperation who is currently vice-president of the Academy of Geopolitical Issues, claimed in an interview with the pro-Kremlin Strana.ru website posted on July 29 that the CIA had provided the Qatari special services with false information that led to the arrest of the two Russian agents. Gzt.ru, for its part, reported that it had come into possession of a list of items found on the agents upon their arrest for Yandarbiyev’s murder. Among those items were photographs of Yandarbiyev’s home in Doha and his Toyota Land Cruiser (to which the bomb that killed him was attached), a video-camera, a laptop computer, an “unidentified electrical device with two wires,” various mobile phones, two air tickets to Saudi Arabia, and two air tickets to the United Arab Emirates (Gzt.ru, July 29).