Strong Case Built Against Alleged Russian Assassins

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 14

As this issue of Chechnya Weekly goes to press, the authorities in Qatar are still proceeding with plans to try two Russian intelligence officers accused of assassinating the Chechen extremist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see Chechnya Weekly, March 24). One of the defense lawyers for the accused Russians told the London Daily Telegraph on April 3 that he and his colleagues had yet to receive permission to visit their imprisoned clients.

According to a March 31 article in Kommersant, U.S. intelligence services helped Qatar track down the two alleged assassins by eavesdropping on their cell phone conversations. The Russians also had the misfortune of being observed by two eyewitnesses, including Yandarbiev’s son, in the parking lot outside the mosque where Yandarbiev and his entourage were praying on February 13; their Slavic appearance made them especially conspicuous in that setting. It was apparently while Yandarbiev’s car was in that parking lot that the alleged killers planted a bomb in it, killing him and seriously injuring his son.

The other eyewitness, an off duty policeman, wrote down their rented car’s license plate number. A forensic examination of that car, according to Kommersant, found insulation and electrical wires identical to those used in the fatal bomb. The physical evidence was so compelling, wrote the Moscow daily, that when confronted with it the two Russian intelligence agents confessed their guilt. However they have now recanted their confessions, knowing that a high powered, joint Russian-British-American team of lawyers has been sent to defend them.

As part of the tit-for-tat maneuvers between Russia and the tiny sheikhdom, two Qatari athletes arrested in Moscow were released in late March after spending several weeks in detention. Their release took place just hours before the Persian Gulf sheikhdom expelled a third Russian, an official of Moscow’s embassy in Qatar who had also been accused of taking part in the assassination but who was protected by diplomatic immunity. According to the April 1 issue of Novaya gazeta, one of the two members of Qatar’s Olympic wrestling team was actually a citizen of Azerbaijan with a Qatar residence permit. Another piquant detail noted by that newspaper was that ostensibly the two athletes were arrested because of their violation of customs regulations–“but for some reason their interrogators were interested only in asking them about connections with Chechen guerrillas.”

Meanwhile, in the March 30 issue of his newspaper, Zavtra, the ultra-nationalist writer and editor Aleksandr Prokhanov confidently informed his readers that the Russian agents were captured because of one mistake: “They trusted the Americans, our partners in the ‘anti-terrorist coalition,’ assuming that they were acting against a common threat to the world. The Americans then betrayed them and put Qatar’s counter-espionage service onto their trail.”