Is the U.S. government working behind the scenes to help spring from jail two Russian spies accused of assassinating a Chechen extremist? Did the assassination break a deal that Russia had just made for the extremist to be tried in Qatar? Did the Russian hit-men do themselves in by making slipshod mistakes? As this issue of Chechnya Weekly went to press, the tense confrontation between Qatar and Russia (see Chechnya Weekly, March 17) continued to raise more questions than answers.
According to the Russian website Gzt.ru, two very well-connected American lawyers have joined the Russian captives’ high powered legal defense team. They are Richard Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general, and Jerome Shestack, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations human rights commission. The two are part of an international legal team headed by Moscow lawyer Dmitry Afanasiev. Last week, according to the sources of Gzt.ru, Qatar was refusing to grant to the British and American members of that team access to the accused Russian–and refusing to let the Russian lawyers even enter the sheikhdom.
While Thornburgh and his colleagues were working for the Russian agents’ release, a U.S. State Department official was being quoted in Moscow as having admitted that the U.S. government helped get the agents arrested. According to Vremya novostei, Steven Pifer said during his current visit to Russia that the United States had provided Qatar with “very insignificant technical assistance” in tracking down the alleged assassins.
The Associated Press asked an official of the U.S. embassy in Moscow to comment. According to that news agency’s story of March 22, the official replied that Washington had sent a team of explosives experts to Qatar at the sheikhdom’s request. The official, who asked not to be identified, said that the U.S. experts “played no role in the arrest or investigation of any suspects.”
Meanwhile, a March 16 article by David Ignatius in the Washington Post revealed new facts and allegations. According to Ignatius, “Just a week before the assassination, the Russians are said to have agreed that he [the Chechen extremist Zelimkhan Yandarbiev] be tried in Qatar. But by then the car bomb that killed him had already been delivered.”
The alleged Russian assassins were caught after Qatar police traced their rented van to a car rental agency that still had videos of the renters from its security cameras, wrote Ignatius. As military officers assigned to temporary duty at the Russian embassy in Qatar, they lacked diplomatic immunity. According to the Ignatius article, “the two Russian officers are said to have confessed, and to have named several senior officers who sent them. The confessions apparently were obtained through clever interrogation, not strong-arm tactics.”
Gzt.ru sought reaction to the Washington Post story from various Russian officials, but none was willing to comment. The website did report some unofficial leaks from Russian sources. For example, contradicting one point in the Ignatius story was a leak from the Russian embassy in Qatar, according to which the captured Russian spies had indeed been tortured and threatened with torture. An anonymous embassy source reportedly said that “for the first three days [in prison] they were not allowed to sleep and were constantly taken off for interrogations; when they fell asleep they were beaten and forced to wake up. They were also beaten during the interrogations in such a way as to try to leave no traces…The Qatar jailers threatened to gouge their eyes out and to knock their teeth out, and kept them for hours in tightly fastened handcuffs.” But according to Gzt.ru, there has been no official confirmation of this account from the Russian foreign ministry.
Meanwhile there were further indications of quiet negotiations between Russia and Qatar to seek agreement, though neither country has confirmed this officially. Vremya novostei reported on March 22 that “a visit to France by outgoing Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on March 5 just happened to ‘coincide’ with the presence in Paris of Qatar’s crown prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani and his escort of diplomats.”