(WiPC/IFEX) - On 6 July 2000, the Russian Interior Ministry announced that journalist Andrei Babitsky has been formally charged with knowingly using false identity papers and that his case has been filed with the public prosecutor. International PEN is concerned that the charges against Babitsky may have been levied as a penalty against his reports on the conflict in Chechnya, which have been critical of the Russian forces there. It also has deep concerns about the manner of his arrest in January, and allegations of ill treatment during his six-week detention.
Babitsky, a journalist for Radio Liberty and veteran reporter of the fighting in Chechnya, "disappeared" in mid-January. It was not until 3 February that the Russian authorities told the press that he had been held by Russian authorities and handed over to Chechen fighters in a prisoner exchange. There is much dispute and speculation about these reports, and questions remain unanswered.
On 25 February, Babitsky emerged in a detention centre in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan. On 28 February, after an intervention by then Acting President Vladimir Putin, he was allowed to return to Moscow, where he is now under "town arrest". He has been unable to accept invitations to travel abroad. In early July he was denied permission to go to Bucharest to accept the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) prize for Journalism and Democracy (see IFEX alert of 7 July 2000). His wife accepted the award in his stead.
Babitsky has testified publicly that he had been exchanged against his will by the Russian authorities for Russian soldiers and that unidentified Chechens had held him in a house in southern Chechnya. He claims that while he had not been physically ill-treated by the Chechens, he had suffered psychological abuse. He believes that his captors were pro-Moscow Chechens.
Babitsky told of harrowing experiences during his detention at the Chernokozovo "filtration" camp from his arrest to his exchange on 3 February. "I was beaten up with truncheons by Russian guards in Chernokozovo on the second day of my detention. This is a routine procedure in the camp. They beat any newcoming detainee by a few dozen blows of a truncheon on the body. I was kept in a cell with fifteen other detainees. One of them was really badly beaten while I was there. I heard the screams of victims all the time. I heard monstrous torture while I was there." He added that he could hear a female detainee screaming throughout the night while being tortured and possibly raped.
On his forged documentation, Babitsky claims that his Chechen captors had forced him to agree to go to Azerbaijan and had taken his passport and ID. They had forged an Azeri passport but had forgotten that he needed an Azeri border pass. He said he was driven to Dagestan and forced to check into a hotel with his forged passport. He was subsequently arrested by the Dagestan authorities during a routine check of all documents of hotel residents.
Babitsky faces a maximum of six-months in prison if found guilty. However, PEN's previous experience with similar cases leads it to fear that the trial process will be lengthy, and that Babitsky could be held for several months under his present restrictions until the conclusion of the trial.
Send appeals to the president:
- expressing your deep concern about the charges levied against Babitsky, fearing that they have been made as a means of penalising him for his criticism of the Russian forces in Chechnya
- seeking assurances that this is not the case, and calling for a lifting of the travel ban against him
- also calling upon the Russian authorities to answer the many questions surrounding Babitsky's arrest and detention in early 2000
President of the Russian Federation
Rossiyskaya Federatsiya, g. Moskva, Kreml
I.o Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii, Russian Federation
Fax: +7 095 206 6277
Copies of your appeals should also be sent to the Russian embassy in your country. In Canada, copy appeal to:
Mr. Alexander Belonogov
Embassy of the Russian Federation
285 Charlotte Street
K1N 8L5 Canada
Fax: +1 613 236 6342
Please copy appeals to the source if possible.