Chechnyan Separatist Denied Asylum in Germany Is Moscow Pulling the Strings?

Apti Bisultanov, the poet and former Chechnyan Minister for Social Affairs, has been refused asylum in Germany. Berlin claims he is a human rights violator but are the Germans bending to pressure from Russia?


Russian soldiers in Grozny. The former Chechnyan Minister Apti Bisultanov admits to fighting against them -- now his application for asylum has been turned down in Germany.

Russian soldiers in Grozny. The former Chechnyan Minister Apti Bisultanov admits to fighting against them -- now his application for asylum has been turned down in Germany.

Apti Bisultanov's hands are big -- and so are his words. The 47-year-old sits at a dark wooden table in an apartment in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, holding a glass of tea in his right hand. He's visiting his German translator Ekkehard Maass, who shares his anger over a piece of writing that is anything but literary. "What is written here," Bisultanov says, "offends my honor."

The document that so irks Bisultanov -- a poet and the former Minister for Social Affairs of a Chechnya struggling for independence -- is a notice bearing the file number 5190160-160. Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has turned the truth on its head, in his view: A man whose native village was razed to the ground and who was forced to flee from Russian troops has been branded a human rights violator. That was the reason his asylum application was rejected as "clearly unjustified."

The reason the immigration officials have given is almost as complicated as the situation in Chechnya itself. But the central accusation brought against the "applicant, a Russian citizen of Chechnyan ethnic background" is contained in a single sentence. As a former Chechnyan minister, Bisultanov "shares political responsibility for military units of the Chechnyan movement that commited human rights violations."

The long arm of Moscow

For Bisultanov, who has resided in Germany since 2003, the document amounts to a "blow" being dealt "an entire people -- one which has been humiliated for years." And Bisultanov isn't the only person to hold this view. Prominent artists and politicians, including German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and French author André Glucksmann, have signed a statement protesting the "scandalous notice." Markus Meckel, a member of Germany's Social Democrat Party (SPD) and of the Bundestag, is also backing the poet, whom he characterizes as a man of "absolute integrity." The West should show its solidarity for the exiled Chechnyan, Meckel demands, "instead of behaving like the long arm of Moscow."

Meckel's accusation hasn't come out of nowhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying for years to discredit every form of resistance against the Russian occupation of Chechnya as terrorism. Russian diplomats tirelessly put pressure on other countries to classify the exiled Chechnyans living there -- including some former ministers -- as terrorists.

The Russians have been active in Bisultanov's case too. On Nov. 25, 2005, Moscow issued a so-called "verbal note" to the German government in which it categorized Bisultanov as a "dangerous propagandist for international terrorism" and demanded that Berlin take action against him. But nothing happened at first. Bisultanov received scholarships allowing him to travel to Europe, and he was made the city of Rheinsberg's writer-in-residence. But then the Foreign Ministry passed the document on to the Interior Ministry, whose officials then passed it on to the Office for Migration and Refugees -- resulting in the rejection of Bisultanov's asylum application.

And yet, according to the Foreign Ministry, it has "no knowledge" of Bisultanov's alleged involvement in human rights violations. He himself says he helped to defend Grozny against Russian troops. He says that, as a poet, he was in charge of a kind of cultural unit, consisting of intellectuals and artists who did public relations work for the independence movement. Günter Nooke, the German government's human rights commissioner, also believes that those who have laid such serious charges against Bisultanov should also substantiate them.

Nor does the rejection of Bisultanov's application accord with standard practice in other Western countries, including the United States. These countries do not consider most exiled Chechnyans terrorists, but rather members of an independence movement covered by the United Nations charter, which declares that all peoples have the right to self-determination. After all, Meckel says, "Russia is commiting genocide in Chechnya."

Moscow's accusations directed at exiled Chechnyans have often proved to be unfounded in the past, and one spectacular case even made it to the courts. About four years ago, Russia put pressure on several European contries to arrest and extradite Ahmed Zakayev, the envoy of Aslan Mashadov, the Chechnyan president who has since been murdered, and who Bisultanov also served. Zakayev was even arrested in Denmark following his participation in a conference organized by exiled Chechnyans, but he was not extradited. The evidence provided by Russia turned out to be too flimsy.

Later, the British authorities also refused to extradite Zakayev. Moscow had accused him of terrorism, murder and kidnapping and provided a court with documents to prove the allegations. It ended in a fiasco for Putin's propaganda machine when the English judge ruled that several documents had been manipulated. Bisultanov's supporters believe that any court proceedings on his asylum application would have the same result.

But even the rejection notice offers a little hope. In the end the immigration officials displayed considerable skepticism about the Russians with regard to one point. They refused to deport Bisultanov, arguing that his return to Russia would involve "the risk of torture and inhumane treatment."


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