Russia: More confusion surrounding the Babitsky case

New York, March 10, 2000 — Two weeks after Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky re-appeared following a month of mysterious captivity in Chechnya, confusion still surrounds his case. Today, the Russian Interfax news service reported that Babitsky had been charged with aiding Chechen rebels. Interfax said the Russian prosecutor general’s office had filed the charges, which carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.

The Interfax report was promptly denied, both by Radio Liberty and by the prosecutor general’s office. However, Babitsky remains confined to Moscow pending the completion of the government’s investigation.

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. He was held at a Russian detention facility in Chechnya, where he witnessed the torture of Chechen civilians and was himself beaten.

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 apparently was treating Babitsky himself as a prisoner of war, although he was clearly a civilian.

Babitsky’s February 29 re-appearance followed weeks of pressure from international press freedom groups and Western governments. At a press conference in Moscow shortly after his release, Babitsky claimed that Russian authorities had in fact turned him over to members of a pro-Russian Chechen militia, and then announced that he had been turned over to rebels in order to discredit him. .