Trial Of Russian Agents Begins In Qatar

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 15

On April 11 began the long awaited trial of two Russian intelligence agents charged with murdering a Chechen extremist in Qatar. According to QNA, the Persian Gulf sheikhdom’s state controlled news agency, both of the defendants pleaded not guilty to the major charge of murder–though one of them pleaded guilty to a secondary charge of “deception and forgery.”

The two alleged assassins have finally been identified by name, though in a somewhat garbled form. An April 11 bulletin from Agence France-Presse, apparently relying on an Arabic transcription of their names from Qatari sources, referred to them as “Anatoly Bilashkov Vladimirvich” and “Vassily Anatolyvich Pokchov.” (At least the first of those looks like a misreading by the Arabs; a more typical Slavic name would be “Anatoly Vladimirovich Bilashkov.” An April 12 article in Izvestia, apparently using an Arab journalist’s version of what he had heard orally in the courtroom, rendered the two names as “Anatoly Belashov” and “Vasily Bokchov.”)

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, said to a press conference last week, “I don’t know if the Russians will be prosecuted according to the recently adopted law which allows for the death penalty for terrorism, or whether they will be shown lenience. Let’s wait for what the court says.” No matter how convincing the proof of the Russian spies’ guilt, use of the new law would raise serious concerns about the legitimacy of their conviction and punishment–since that law was introduced and enacted only after the February assassination. The new law broadly defines terrorism as an act that “employs violence to “disrupt order and public peace and jeopardizes the safety of society.” It authorizes capital punishment for “anyone founding, organizing or managing a group or organization to commit a terrorist act.”

Perhaps in an attempt to improve their bargaining position, the Qatari prosecutors raised the trial’s political stakes by mentioning Russia’s minister of defense as having given the order for the assassination. Quoting a state controlled Qatari newspaper, Izvestia reported on April 12 that the formal charges presented to the court included such a reference to the minister, though they did not mention him personally by name. Defense lawyer Dmitry Afanasiev, present in the courtroom, declined when asked by Izvestia either to confirm or to deny the Qatari newspaper’s account. A spokesman for Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov responded to Izvestia’s inquiry by saying “I cannot call these reports anything other than absurd. That is why I do not think it is possible to comment on this nonsense.”

The next session of the trial is scheduled for April 25. According to an article by Natalya Gevorkyan in the April 12 issue of Kommersant, the reason for the two-week delay is to give the defense lawyers a chance to study the case materials. Gevorkyan wrote that “in any case, I have heard the following during the last few weeks: ‘Everything will be all right. They will be pardoned. They will be convicted first, then pardoned.'” But she added that it will be necessary for the Russian state to take special precautions to guard the accused assassins for years after their predicted release: “Neither Vladimir Putin nor the Qatari emir can abrogate the law of the highlands.”