Extraditing Chechen Exiles Germany Has Doubts About Russia's Intentions

Russia wants Germany to extradite three Chechen exiles who it says have committed serious crimes. Now the German government has to assess whether the requests are justified. The recent murder of a Chechen in Vienna, however, has reinforced doubts about Moscow's intentions.

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On July 2, 2008, the odyssey of Chechen Magomed Debirov seemed to have come to a happy end. An administrative court in the eastern city of Magdeburg ruled that Debirov, a physician, was to be recognized as a refugee in Germany. Between 1999 and 2001, he had worked as a medical aide to Chechen rebels fighting for independence from Russia. Debirov testified that he had been tortured while in Russian captivity, and the judges were convinced that his claims were true.

Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov (C) at the reopening of Grozny Airport in 2007.
REUTERS

Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov (C) at the reopening of Grozny Airport in 2007.

But Debirov's elation over the verdict was short-lived. A resident of Magdeburg, he was arrested on Oct. 23 when a regional appeals court in the central German town of Naumburg enforced/upheld an arrest warrant issued by the Staropromislovsk District Court in the Chechen capital Grozny on Aug. 15, 2008. Under criminal case number 54,859 Debirov, 27, was charged with "severe robbery." According to the indictment, he and a group of accomplices, all of them armed, broke into a property owned by the energy company Grosneftegas in October 2002 and made off with diesel oil worth 1,815 rubles (€58, or $75).

The expatriate has now been in German custody for the past three months. The Federal Office of Justice, the central authority for the German judiciary, have the final say in whether to extradite Debirov. But officials at the agency have their doubts about Russia's motives and have submitted the case to the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry for review. Debirov's case has thus been turned into an affair of state.

The most fundamental of questions are raised in such cases, and they have often led to tensions between Germany and Russia in the past. From a legal point of view, German courts must ask themselves whether they can trust arrest warrants from Russia, a country in which, according to the human rights commissioner of the European Council, "torture and abuse" are practiced and, according to the European Court of Human Rights, authorities are responsible for torture. Moreover, it is still a fundamental matter of debate as to whether persecuted Chechens can be seen as resistance and freedom fighters or must be classified as terrorists.

Similar cases have led to heated exchanges and harsh, rather undiplomatic, words. In 2002, then President Vladimir Putin asked Berlin -- in vain, as it turned out -- to extradite a Chechen author living in Germany who had written a book about her struggle against the Russians. And in 2007, Moscow issued a verbal note seeking to dissuade German authorities from granting asylum to a prominent Chechen exile, author Apti Bisultanov. But Germany granted him asylum nonetheless. He lives in the Austrian capital Vienna today.

Murder on the Streets of Vienna

This time, however, the situation is considerably more dramatic. In addition to Debirov, Russia wants Germany to extradite two other Chechens accused of violent crimes: of murder, in one case, and of planning an attack, in the other. The attorneys fear for their clients' lives, whether they are extradited or released in Germany.

A recent killing in Austria shows what the power machine in Chechnya is apparently capable of. Chechen exile Umar Israilov, 27, was murdered in broad daylight on a street in Vienna on Jan. 13. He had voiced serious accusations against Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, 32. According to Israilov, the Moscow-backed regional despot had been personally involved in torture.

The Russian government had asked for Israilov's extradition, but Austria turned down the request. The Alpine republic was not, however, prepared to provide the Chechen exile with a bodyguard, even though he said he had concrete reasons to feel threatened. And despite the fact that another Chechen had turned himself in to authorities and told them that he was one of Kadyrov's agents and was in the country to carry out a murder. But instead of believing the man, the Austrian authorities simply deported him.

The Vienna murder has caused turmoil among Chechens living in Germany. They know that Kadyrov's long arm reaches all the way to Berlin, and that he has agents operating in the city. In fact, they contact Chechen exiles regularly. In December, for example, two brothers -- former Chechen ministers and now followers of Kadyrov -- were in Berlin and other cities to try to convince renegades to return home. The agent from Vienna had also spent time in Germany previously.

Kadyrov, a former militia leader who has his own prison, keeps ominously close tabs on Chechens abroad. Many of them fear that the arrest warrants are merely a subterfuge to allow Kadyrov to catch his enemies.

At home, on Chechen television, Kadyrov solemnly bemoans the fate of his fellow Chechens who have fled the region. He claims that they are "starving" in Europe and abandoning their traditional customs. In these public pleas, he seems concerned about their welfare. But there is another side to Kadyrov. When he talks about his enemies abroad, referring to them as "groups without dignity," his compassionate tone vanishes.

Accusing someone of lacking dignity is like pronouncing a verdict, explains a Chechen interpreter. This makes it a clear threat, says German poet and translator Ekkehard Maass, chairman of the German-Caucasian Society. His courtyard apartment in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood is a point of contact for many Chechen exiles. Germany's Commissioner for Human Rights Günter Nooke relies on his familiarity with the subculture. Maass was the one who told him about the situation of the detained Chechens.

Judiciary Rarely Question Russian Arrest Warrants

One of them once fought for Chechen independence and claims that Kadyrov himself tortured him, and that he and Israilov, the Chechen murdered in Vienna, were held together in Kadyrov's private prison. He fled through Poland in an attempt to reach France but was detained at the German-Polish border and sentenced for smuggling. The Russians claim that he killed a woman in 2002 while serving in a militia and have asked for his extradition. His fate, like that of Debirov, now lies in the hands of the German government.

It is a problem, says Human Rights Commissioner Nooke, to have signed a law enforcement treaty with a country that "not a state under the rule of law." It is not easy to reject Russia's extradition requests, now that the country has signed a European extradition agreement. In Germany, there is a two-stage process to rule on extradition requests. Courts review the requests first, and in the end, the Federal Office of Justice makes the decision on behalf of the government. Judges in Germany who execute Russian arrest warrants and negotiate the extraditions operate within a formal structure. As a rule, they review the plausibility of the arrest warrants to a very limited extent and they rarely question arrest warrants from Russia or from the region under Kadyrov's control.

Akhmed Zakayev, senior aide to former separatist Chechen President Maskhadov. Moscow requested his extradition from the United Kingdom.
AP

Akhmed Zakayev, senior aide to former separatist Chechen President Maskhadov. Moscow requested his extradition from the United Kingdom.

The decision by the Naumburg Higher Regional Court, which ruled in favor of extraditing the Chechen exile Debirov, states succinctly that an examination of the suspicion of that a crime had been committed is "ruled out" under the terms of the extradition agreement. This statement is followed by a few words of appeasement that are more worrisome than anything else: The office of the Russian attorney general has provided extensive reassurances that Debirov would "not be subjected to any torture, or any gruesome, inhuman or demeaning treatment or form of punishment." The court argued that it was not to be expected that these assurances would not be upheld, citing as evidence the international agreements Russia has signed, such as the UN Convention Against Torture.

The judges' argument sounds as if they had discovered a second Russia, one that has nothing in common with the one featured in a recent report by Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center. The authors of a report titled "Prisoners from Chechnya in Russian Prisons / Fabricated Criminal Trials" write: "As a rule, prisoners from Chechnya are sentenced to very long prison terms as a result of fabricated charges based on falsified evidence."

Recalling Zakayev

The German attorneys for the three Chechen exiles assume that such falsification took place in their cases, and they question the veracity of the crimes of which their clients stand accused. The attorney for the third Chechen exile claims that he encountered a flagrant case. His client, who ran an Internet club in Grozny, was tortured after being accused of distributing rebels' secret video messages. To make his tormentors stop, the man agreed to cooperate with Russian intelligence, but then escaped to Western Europe. Now he is in a German prison because of a Russian arrest warrant, charged with participating in the planning of an attack on a politician.

His attorney researched the case and found significant contradictions. There was in fact an attempted assassination of the politician, but two years earlier than the date noted in the arrest warrant. The attorney representing Debirov has also discovered inconsistencies. His client was in Russian custody in 2003, but the attack on the fuel depot happened in 2002. Why has it taken so long to file the charges against him?

German government officials, who clearly share the concerns about Russia's extradition requests, have promised to conduct a careful review. The case of Akhmed Sakayev is still fresh in their minds.

Zakayev was the foreign representative of the elected and now murdered former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. In 2002, Moscow accused Zakayev of terrorism, murder and kidnapping. But British judges were not satisfied to merely conduct a formal review of the arrest warrant, and instead demanded evidence. The negotiations lasted for months and turned into a fiasco for Russia. Moscow's documents proved to be manipulated. For instance, Zakayev's supposed murder victims were still alive.

In the end, the presiding judge not only rejected the extradition request, but also found harsh words. Moscow, he said, was merely interested in "persecuting" Zakayev because of his political views.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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