Russian officials continue to stick to the story that Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky voluntarily agreed to be handed over to Chechen rebel commanders in exchange for Russian POWs. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said yesterday that Babitsky was being held in southern Chechnya, which is still under rebel control, and was “alive and well and where he wanted to be.” An Interior Ministry spokesman, Oleg Aksyonov, said Babitsky was in Alkhazurovo, a village on the edge of Chechnya’s southern mountains (Associated Press, RTR, February 10). Rushailo and others say their assurances that Babitsky is alive are based on “radio intercepts,” but have not explained why Babitsky has not used those same means of communication to contact either his family or his office.
Radio Liberty yesterday quoted an eyewitness as claiming that Babitsky was being held in Gudermes, Chechnya, which is under the control of federal forces and pro-Moscow Chechens. The eyewitness said that Babitsky had been severely beaten. On February 9, the station cited “reliable sources” as saying that Babitsky was in the custody of Bislan Gantemirov’s pro-Russian Chechen militia (Radio Liberty, February 10). Gantemirov said yesterday that neither he nor his men had detained or arrested Babitsky, and that these reports were aimed at discrediting him and his militia (Russian agencies, February 10). Gantemirov, former mayor of Grozny [Djohar], the Chechen capital, was released from prison in Moscow last November, after which he returned to Chechnya to set up his militia under Moscow’s auspices. In 1998, the Russian authorities sentenced Gantemirov to six years in prison on charges of embezzling billion of rubles in state funds earmarked to rebuild Chechnya following the 1994-1996 war.
Meanwhile, the international community continues to express concern about Babitsky’s fate. European Commission President Romano Prodi said yesterday that the commission wanted to send a mission to Chechnya to gather information about Babitsky, while a group of U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Putin demanding Babitsky’s release. On February 8, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe demanded that Russia present proof that Babitsky is alive (Radio Liberty, February 10). The following day, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the United States had expressed “the gravest fears” over Babitsky’s fate and called on Russian officials to “come clean” about the missing journalist (UPI, February 9).
Protests over the treatment of Babitsky have been growing inside Russia as well. On February 9, Oleg Mironov, the Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman, called the treatment of Babitsky “a crude violation of human rights.” Mironov, who was a KPRF deputy in the State Duma before Boris Yeltsin made him the Kremlin’s human rights watchdog, said the Russian authorities must give an “immediate explanation” for what has happened to Babitsky (NTV, February 9). On February 8, fifty-two leading Russian journalists released an appeal concerning the Radio Liberty journalist. “As long as the truth about this story is not made clear, including from Babitsky himself, we have every reason to assume that the Russian authorities have not only renounced the principle of free speech, but also the elementary observance of legality,” the appeal read. “That kind of government is called totalitarian” (UPI, February 9).
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