Prosecutors in Qatar have asked that two Russian special services agents accused of assassinating former Chechen separatist President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in February be sentenced to death. Dmitri Afanasyev, an attorney representing the accused Russians, said the prosecution had asked for the death penalty in the case, which closed on June 8. On June 30 the court is expected to announce a verdict. In addition to Yandarbiyev’s murder, the two Russians are accused of attempting to murder his 14-year-old son, Daud, who was seriously injured in the February 13 bomb blast that killed his father. The Russians are also accused of smuggling weapons into Qatar. Al-Jazeera’s English-language website reported that one of the accused Russians, Anatoly Belashkov, had pleaded not guilty to murdering Yandarbiyev, while the second defendant, Vassily Bokchov, had admitted responsibility (English.aljazeera.net, June 8). However, the law firm Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasyev and Partners, in which Dmitri Afanasyev is a partner, said in a June 8 press release that the prosecution had failed to disprove that the two Russians were tortured while in custody (Interfax, June 8).
In late April, Afanasyev told Ren-TV that the two defendants were beaten, deprived of sleep and attacked by dogs soon after their arrest. Afanasyev also said the defense would seek the Russians’ release on grounds that they had been detained and searched unlawfully at their diplomatic residence (Moscow Times, April 27). In early May, the Associated Press reported that one of the defendants had told the Qatari court he would not answer its questions because he had been tortured while in custody (AP, May 6).
After the Qatari authorities arrested the two Russians in February, Igor Ivanov, who was Russian foreign minister at the time, admitted they were intelligence agents and said they had gone to Qatar to collect anti-terrorism intelligence. But Ivanov maintained that the two were not involved in Yandarbiyev’s death. Aleksandr Fetisov, first secretary in the Russian embassy in Doha, was arrested along with the two agents but subsequently released. According to some accounts, Fetisov gained release from custody on the basis of diplomatic immunity. According to other accounts, Fetisov’s release, which took place following a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Halifa Al Thani in late March, was accomplished in exchange for the freeing of two Qatari wrestlers. Russian authorities had detained the two wrestlers on the same day Qatar announced the Russians had been formally charged with murdering Yandarbiyev (MosNews, June 4). Sources on the Chechen side claim the Qatari court presented compelling evidence of the Russians’ guilt. According to Usman Ferzauli, an adviser to Yandarbiyev’s widow, Malika Yandarbiyeva, a videotape played during court proceedings showed the two defendants detailing how Fetisov had ordered them to assassinate Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and how they planned and carried out the operation (Gazeta, June 5; Kavkazcenter.com, May 31).
Following the news that the Qatari prosecutors would seek the death penalty for the accused Russian intelligence agents, Mikhail Troyansky, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Department, told Ekho Moskvy radio, “We are doing everything possible so that our citizens return to their homeland” (Ekho Moskvy, June 8). An article in June 9 edition of Kommersant revisits the idea that the two Russians will be found guilty but pardoned by Qatar’s emir. The newspaper cites various arguments in favor of this theory, including that Qatar’s first-ever written constitution will go into effect next year. “In similar cases of giving a constitution to the people, Eastern rulers typically make grand gestures – for example, perhaps an amnesty will be announced that will cover the convicted Russians,” Kommersant quotes an unnamed “expert” with one of Qatar’s large non-governmental organizations as saying. “True, they will probably have to remain in jail until next year” (Kommersant, June 9). There has been wide speculation that Putin and the Qatari monarch made a deal to resolve the crisis during their March telephone conversation.