New York, February 29, 2000—War correspondent Andrei Babitsky was freed early today in Moscow, having been flown there from Dagestan without the knowledge of his wife or attorney.
The Radio Free Europe correspondent had been missing since January 27, when Russian troops allegedly handed him over to rebel forces in Chechnya. He resurfaced on February 25 in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. He was immediately arrested for possession of a false Azerbaijani passport and placed in the custody of the Russian Interior Ministry.
Babitsky was freed less than a day after acting Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly suggested that there are no grounds to keep him in detention, and questioned the Interior Ministry’s handling of the case, according to wire service reports. In an interview with the private NTV television network early today, Babitsky said the fake passport had been given to him by his Chechen captors, who took away his own documents.
The announcement of Babitsky’s arrest ended weeks of speculation about the missing correspondent’s fate. The search for Babitsky was supported by Western human-rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, along with the U.S. Senate, which passed a unanimous resolution calling on Moscow to provide information about his fate. Babitsky is a veteran journalist who covered much of the current Russian military campaign in Chechnya from the Chechen rebel side. His reports from the front, including interviews with rebel commanders and with witnesses describing human rights atrocities, angered Russian authorities.
On January 8, Russian security agents raided Babitsky’s apartment in Moscow and called in his wife, Ludmila, for questioning. Although it appears that the journalist may have been detained as early as January 16, he was apparently not formally arrested by Russian troops until January 27, outside the Chechen capital, Grozny. Less than a week later, on February 3, Russian officials unexpectedly announced that Babitsky had agreed to be traded to Chechen rebels in exchange for Russian soldiers whom the rebels were holding as prisoners of war. The Russian government thus treated Babitsky himself as a prisoner of war, although he is clearly a civilian.
Babitsky’s fate was unknown for several weeks, as Russian officials made conflicting statements about his case. Last week, Russian television broadcast footage of Interior Ministry officials interrogating Babitsky, who explained that he agreed to the exchange on the condition that he be handed over to Turpal-ali Atgeriyev, a Chechnyan rebel commander whom he knew. On the videotape of the interrogation, Babitsky also said that he used a false passport because he “had no other document. And I was afraid of . . . announcing who I was.”
On the day of his arrest, authorities permitted Babitsky to call his wife and reassure her that he was alive and well. Three days later, the journalist began a hunger strike to protest his attention. His wife arrived in Makhachkala on February 27, but was not allowed to see Babitsky. Nor was she informed of the decision to fly the journalist to Moscow and free him there.
For more information on the Babitsky case, see Radio Free Europe’s Web site at
http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/babitsky/index.html (or click here).
“THERE WERE MANY MOMENTS WHEN SOME OF US FEARED THE WORST.”
–RADIO FREE EUROPE OFFICIAL ON BABITSKY CASE
Andrei Babitsky is a Russian national employed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S. government-funded network based in Washington, D.C. On February 29, the day Russian authorities released Babitsky in Moscow, CPJ’s Washington representative, Frank Smyth, interviewed Paul A. Goble, RFE/RL’s director of communications and technology.
FS: Have Russian authorities released Andrei Babitsky yet and dropped the charges against him?
PG: No, the case against him is still pending. He was released under his own recognizance in Moscow, and we are now pushing for the charges to be dropped.
FS: There was some confusion while Babitsky was missing as to what actually happened on February 3, when Russian authorities allegedly handed Babitsky over to Chechen rebels in exchange for Russian soldiers whom the rebels had been holding as prisoners of war. Could you explain what happened?
PG: We are very convinced on the basis of our own analysis of the film, which has clearly been doctored, and now Andrei’s own statements to his lawyer and his wife and his colleague, Oleg Kusov, that this was not a genuine exchange. Babitsky had agreed to be [handed over] to a particular individual. But that did not happen. When Babitsky got to where he was being exchanged, he realized that he was being handed over to masked men that he did not recognize. That was excised from the tape that was released by the Russian. He didn’t know where he was being taken to, and he was kept in a darkened room. He did not talk to anyone. He was fed but he didn’t speak to anyone.
Then, last Thursday night, he was placed in the trunk of a car and driven to Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, which is east of Chechnya. Then he walked into town and tried to check into a hotel. His own papers had been taken from him. His Russian passport and his accreditation papers and satellite phone had all been taken away, so he made use of the papers that had been put on his person.
FS: Who gave him the new papers?
PG: We don’t know who they areŠ.So far we do not know anything about the people who detained him from February 3 through February 24. We believe that he was being [held] either by Russians or by pro-Moscow ChechensŠ.
FS: Did you ever fear the worst for Babitsky?
PG: There were many moments when some of us feared the worst. The Russian duplicity in all of this raises many questions. The Russians lied repeatedly. They constantly said they didn’t know where he was, at the same time that they said he was still alive. It can’t be both.
FS: What actions do you think should be taken now?
PG: We would like to see this entire case investigated. We would like to see all the people who were responsible for the violation of Andrei’s rights be brought to justiceŠ.Precisely the kind of attention that this case has generated should be the occasion for a renewed movement toward freedom of the press, as opposed to Moscow’s recent actions again the press. The treatment of Babitsky is part of a much broader campaign to restrict freedom of the press across the country. Ten days ago, the Russian government changed the way that subsidies are passed out to regular media. Before they were distributed through regional governors. Now moneys are to be handed directly to newspapers by the Moscow bureaucracy, bypassing the governors. Two weeks ago, [the Russian government] increased its invasions of privacy of Russian Internet users. So the Babitsky case fits a general patternŠ.
FS: How do you assess the reaction of the international community to Babitsky’s case?
PG: We’ve been absolutely thrilled by the reaction from the European countries. We’ve had good support from the American government, from Capitol Hill. Last week the Senate passed a resolution on the case. A number of good statements have been issued by the State Department. We kept pushing to have them all act because we wanted our man back safe and free. We have been extremely impressed with groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Sans Frontières, and the International Freedom of Expression network, as well as with independent Russian journalists who have denounced what the Russian authorities have done in this case. And we have been especially pleased with the e-mails that we have gotten from ordinary Russians, as they see this case not just as a press freedom issue, but as being about freedom in general.