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Mar. 26, 2004
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Let Go
// Why Vladimir Putin Called Qatar
An Exchange
On Wednesday night, Russia and Qatar made an exchange of prisoners. All this took place only a few hours after a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Qatari athletes were released from Lefortovo Prison, and Aleksandr Fetisov, first secretary at the RF Embassy in Qatar, returned to Russia. Qatari authorities accused Fetisov of complicity in the murder of ex-president of Chechnya Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and expelled him from the country. The trial of the diplomat’s alleged accomplices in a Doha court could start as early as today. The exchange will have a very strong influence on it. VLAD TRIFONOV gives the details.
– Around eight o’clock in the evening they called me from the Qatari Embassy and told me to be ready. That the situation with my clients was just about settled and that President Putin and the Emir of Qatar had discussed this problem a couple of hours ago, – lawyer Omar Akhmedov, defence for Greco-Roman wrestler Ibad Akhmedov, told Kommersant.

We remind our readers that on Feburary 26, Ibad Akhmedov and Nasser al-Madhihiki, a member of the board of Qatar’s National Wrestling Federation, were flying from Belarus via Moscow to Olympic elimination matches in Serbia, but ended up in the FSB’s Lefortovo Prison. Lawyers were initially appointed to defend the wrestlers. Then a real defence lawyer appeared. He was Omar Akhmedov, who had gained a reputation in 2002 for getting a relatively light sentence for special services officer Aleksandr Sypachev, who had been charged with espionage. Chief Military Prosecutor Aleksandr Savenkov had demanded a 15-year term for Colonel Sypachev, but the accused received only 8 years. The lawyer modestly summed up his role in freeing the Qataris by saying, “Of course, you understand that everything was settled at the very top.”

– I was in constant touch with the embassy, and after ten o’clock at night they sent for me and the release procedure began, – the lawyer continued. – The investigation was discontinued for lack of corpus delicti (essence of the crime) in the case of Ibad, who had been accused of being a member of illegal organizations, and he was released. They also released Nasser, who had apparently been accused of not declaring foreign currency. Another defence lawyer represented his interests.

At the same time the lawyer maintained that neither he nor the Qataris had any complaints about the investigation. “There were six FSB investigators on the investigation team, and questioning took place three times a week,” he noted. “I didn’t find any procedural infractions in the case; everything was extremely correct and regulated. The investigators were civil and didn’t make mistakes. The embassy for its part did everything possible to defend Ibad and Nasser. There were no differences between them; both were treated as citizens of Qatar (Ibad Akhmedov had Belarussian citizenship and a residence permit in Qatar – Kommersant). As soon as the transfer was authorized, they received their belongings and food, and 3000 rubles were deposited in their personal accounts, enough for a month of normal life in Lefortovo. Ibad held up well throughout, although of course he was frightened by what was happening. I was sure that everything would turn out all right and that they’d be released by the end of March. But based on the specifics of the case, I was ready for any outcome.“

Qatari ambassador to the Russian Federation Muhammad Al-Kubaysi and his assistants came for the wrestlers at Lefortovo in two cars. From Lefortovo they immediately took off for the embassy and then to Sheremetevo 2, where a Boeing jet sent specially by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was already waiting for the athlete and the official.

Aleksandr Fetisov, first secretary at the Russian Embassy in Qatar, probably used the same plane to return to Russia. The diplomat had been held along with two Russian special services officers on charges of complicity in the murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Doha, but had been quickly let go. Mr. Fetisov was effectively under arrest in the Russian Embassy in Qatar, since he had no right to leave it, although Qatari investigators were not allowed into the embassy to question him. Thus, the diplomat’s expulsion, which the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID RF) met with the note of protest traditional in these cases, can still be numbered among the successes of Russian diplomacy. Despite his status, Mr. Fetisov could have found himself in the same Qatari prison as his colleagues, but now they allowed him to quietly leave the country.

The freed Qataris and their lawyers did not encounter Aleksandr Fetisov at Sheremetevo 2, although judging from MID RF statements, Mr. Fetisov returned to his homeland about the same time as the Qatari athletes left Russia.

– I didn’t believe they were letting us go until the very last minute, – Ibad Akhmedov told a Kommersant correspondent who located him in Doha. – Even when we went outside and I saw the ambassador, I still thought they were transferring us to another prison, not letting us go. After we got into the embassy car and drove off, I asked the ambassador: “Is that it?” “That’s it, Ibad, it’s all over, “ the ambassador replied. “You’re free.” I asked for a phone so I could call my mother. She lives in Azerbaijan; she’s old and in poor health, and I was really worried about her. If they’ve told her anything about me, she’ll be so upset! I’ve never been in jail before, never had any trouble, and now this!

Mr. Akhmedov recounted that he was first held in solitary confinement in Lefortovo, and how terrified he was then. Then they moved him to a cell with two other guys. One of them consoled him by saying, “Ibad, you’re a terrorist, you’ll get life for it.” He soon learned at the interrogation that he was being investigated for involvement in the apartment house explosion in Volgodonsk in 1999. It should be recalled that the FSB long ago declared that the crime had been solved. Two of the accomplices in the crime, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov and Adam Dekkushev, were sentenced to life imprisonment by the Moscow City Court at the end of last year. Two others, Achimez Gochiyaev and Khakim Abaev, are still at large. Ibad Akhmedov is not on the official wanted lists for this terrorist act posted on the FSB’s website; only Gochiyaev and Abaev are on them. Nevertheless, Ibad claims they asked him about this explosion. They were also interested in whether he knew Abu al-Walid.

– I didn’t know what to tell them. I learned about the terrorist attack in Volgodonsk from the FSB guys. I’d never been interested in politics before this. I told the investigator I’d been involved in wrestling all this time. What terrorism, what apartment house? They wrote it all down and then asked again. After maybe two or three weeks, the investigator said they didn’t need anything in particular from me after all: “You’re a sort of hostage here. You’ll sit here until Qatar releases our guys. When they’re released, we’ll let you go.” Politely, as I said; he didn’t threaten or beat me.

The former prisoners slept through the entire flight to Qatar aboard the luxury liner (Ibad said he’d never flown like this before). They landed in Doha at 3:30 a.m. There was no hero’s welcome for them—no crowds of journalists, no flowers, no tears of joy. Ibad’s coach, Aleksandr Dubrovsky, reported that besides him, only a few local officials and wrestling federation representatives were there to meet them.

– I naturally downed a glass of vodka to freedom, – the coach said, – but Ibad refused. He doesn’t drink at all.

Even though Ibad missed the Olympic elimination matches, Dubrovsky hopes that he will still be able to go to Athens. According to Dubrovsky, Qatar has already asked the International Olympic Committee to make an exception for the wrestler, who had been a hostage of “political circumstances.” Ibad himself claims he is in top shape: “I shed some weight before the eliminations, but while I was in jail I lost enough so that I’ll really have to stuff myself.”

Qatari government officials say the prisoner exchange could have a major impact on the outcome of the trial of the Russian special service officers accused of the murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Case materials were made available for the first time yesterday to lawyers from the firm Egorov, Puginsky, Afanasev and Partners who had arrived in Doha. They are now actively preparing for the trial, which could begin as early as today. If the Russians are found guilty, they face the death penalty. Their guilt is aggravated by the fact that the deceased was a personal guest of the Emir of Qatar. The Emir’s conversation with President Putin and the subsequent release of the Qataris from Lefortovo could well convince the Emir of the Russian side’s friendliness. Then the trial will turn into a mere formality. Kommersant’ s experts from leading law firms predict the following outcome for the trial: the accused will be convicted; then the Emir will issue a decree pardoning them, after which the Russians will be expelled from Qatar.

– Somehow, I have a feeling that now that Ibad and Nasser have been released, they’ll release our secret service agents in Qatar, – Omar Akhmedov told Kommersant. – This will probably happen in the next few days.

Kommersant will be following the development of events.

They Served Time for the Homeland

Legal KGB and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) residents (i.e., fixed-post spies) abroad were very rarely arrested. As a rule, even if intelligence agents operating “under cover” of embassies and other foreign missions were detained, they were released within a few hours after confirmation of their diplomatic status and then expelled from the country. The last publicized case of this kind was the detention of second secretary of the RF Embassy Stanislav Gusev in Washington on December 9, 1999, on charges of gathering secret information from the US State Department (according to the FBI, agent Gusev collected information from a listening device planted in the State Department building while sitting in his car parked nearby). The diplomat was released three hours later and declared persona non grata.

As a rule, Soviet secret agents who were arrested and imprisoned included “illegals” (special service officers operating under forged documents who did not reveal their connection with the USSR) or agents who were citizens of foreign countries. Nevertheless, there are at least four known cases of arrests of Soviet special service agents operating under “legal” cover.

On April 5, 1941, Gaik Ovakimyan, a consulting engineer for the Soviet foreign trading company Amtorg who was actually head of NKVD USSR foreign intelligence residents, was arrested in New York. He was arrested during a meeting with an agent and released on $50 000 bail. However, his trial never took place. After Germany invaded the USSR in summer 1941, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the Soviet resident’s release. On July 23, 1941, Ovakimyan was deported to the USSR, where he became deputy director of NKVD foreign intelligence responsible for operations in North America.

Events unfolding in Turkey in 1942 bear a striking resemblance to the murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. On February 24, 1942, in Ankara there was an attempted assassination of the German ambassador, Franz von Papen. Omer Tokata, a Bulgarian Turk, had planned to throw a bomb at the ambassador, who was strolling with his wife along Ataturk Boulevard. However, the bomb went off prematurely right in the would-be assassin’s hands, killing him. The Turks claimed that the organizers of the crime were two Soviet citizens: Georgy Mordvinov, head of the trade mission and chief of the NKVD residents, and Leonid Kornilov, an official of the Consulate General. Soviet diplomats refused to hand over the accused. The Turkish authorities countered by surrounding the building of the USSR Consulate General with an infantry battalion and threatening to storm it. The secret service agents were forced to give themselves up. On April 1, 1942, Mordvinov and Kornilov were each sentenced to 20 years in prison. The term was later reduced to 16.5 years. However, in August 1944, when Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, the agents were released by a special decision of the Medjlis and returned to their homeland. The RF Foreign Intelligence Service has still not officially acknowledged the Soviet Union’s involvement in the attempted assassination of von Papen. However, Pavel Sudoplatov, who headed the NKVD’s 4th (subversion) Directorate during the war years, wrote in his memoirs that the person behind the operation was Naum Eitingon, deputy head of the NKVD special group and one of the Soviet Union’s best saboteurs, who was visiting Turkey at the time.

On March 12, 1976, GRU officer Aleksandr Machekhin, officially an employee of the Novosti New Agency’s correspondent office, was arrested in Tokyo. He was arrested while receiving a microfilm from an agent who was a US Navy officer. The Japanese did not inform the Soviet Embassy of the arrest, but in response to an official inquiry, declared they had no information on Mr. Machekhin’s fate. The Japanese authorities did not officially confirm the arrest until May 14 and refused to hand over the agent, who did not have diplomatic status. The Soviet ambassador was informed that the prisoner’s fate was “a matter for the police.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR called the arrest “provocation of the first order” and threatened Japan with “serious complications.” Mr. Machekhin refused to testify and went on a five-day hunger strike in prison. On May 22, the Japanese Prosecutor General made the decision to release him from prison.

On May 20, 1978, Rudolf Chernyaev, Valdik Enger, and Vladimir Zinyakin, three KGB foreign intelligence officers operating under UN cover, were arrested together in New Jersey while collecting an agent’s report from a cache. More than 100 FBI agents took part in the arrest. The cache contained secret US Navy documents placed there by KGB agent Artur Lindberg. As attaché of the Soviet mission to the UN, Vladimir Zinyakin had diplomatic status and was released the same day. Rudolf Chernyaev and Valdik Enger were employees of the UN secretariat and did not have such immunity. They spent a month in jail before being released on bail and recognizance not to leave. On October 23, 1978, the City of Newark Circuit Court sentenced Chernyaev and Enger to 50 years in prison each. They filed an appeal and continued to live in the residential complex of the Soviet mission to the UN. On April 27, 1979, after lengthy negotiations between the USSR and the US, the two Soviet agents were exchanged for five dissidents serving sentences in Soviet prisons: Aleksandr Ginzburg, Eduard Kuznetsov, Mark Dymshchits, Valentin Moroz, and Georgy Vins. Valdik Enger received the title “Honored State Security Officer” for the operation in New Jersey. Emigrant Evgeny Lyubin wrote the book He Entered the Service… based on the history of their arrest.

Vlad Trifonov

All the Article in Russian as of Mar. 25, 2004

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