Assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev
On February 13, 2004, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was assassinated when a bomb ripped through his SUV in the Qatari capital, Doha. Yandarbiyev was seriously wounded and died in hospital. Two of his bodyguards were killed as well, and his 12-year-old son Daud was seriously injured.
It was initially unclear who was responsible for the blast, but suspicion fell on SVR or GRU, denying any involvement, or internal feuding among the Chechen rebel leadership. Aslan Maskhadov's separatist Foreign Ministry condemned the assassination as a "Russian terrorist attack", comparing it to the 1996 attack that killed Dzhokhar Dudayev. The car bomb led to Qatar's first anti-terrorism law, declaring lethal terrorist acts punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Investigation and trial
On February 19, 2004, the Qatari authorities arrested three Russians in the Russian embassy villa for the murders. One of them, the first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Qatar, Aleksandr Fetisov, was released in March allegedly due to his diplomatic status and the remaining two GRU agents: Anatoly Yablochkov (also known as Belashkov) and Vasily Pugachyov (sometimes misspelled as Bogachyov), were charged with the assassination of Yandarbiyev, assassination attempt of his son Daud and smuggling weapons into Qatar. According to Moscow, Yablochkov and Pugachyov were secret intelligence agents sent to the Russian Embassy in Doha to collect information about global terrorism. Russia’s acting Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov pledged state support to the suspects and declared that their imprisonment was illegal. There were some speculations that Aleksandr Fetisov had been released in exchange for Qatari wrestlers detained in Moscow on February 28.
The trial proceedings were closed to the public after the defendants claimed that one of the prosecution witnesses, the Qatari Colonel Dawi or Dawdi, had tortured them in the first days after their arrest, when they had been held incommunicado; the two Russians alleged that they had suffered beatings, sleep deprivation and attacks by guard dogs. Based on these torture allegations and the fact that the two officers were arrested within an extraterritorial compound belonging to the Russian Embassy (i.e. effectively on Russian soil), Russia demanded the immediate release of its citizens; they were represented by the attorney of the law firm founded by Nikolai Yegorov, a friend and fellow student of Vladimir Putin at Leningrad State University. The Qatari prosecutors concluded that the suspects had received the order to eliminate Zelimkhan Yandarbiev from Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov personally. On June 30, 2004 both Russians were sentenced to life imprisonment; passing the sentence, the judge stated that they had acted on orders from the Russian leadership.
The verdict of the Doha court caused severe tensions between Qatar and Russia, and on December 23, 2004, Qatar agreed to extradite the prisoners to Russia, where they would serve out their life sentence. The agents received a heroes' welcome on returning to Moscow in January 2005 but disappeared from public view shortly afterwards. The Russian prison authorities admitted in February 2005 that they were not in jail, but said that a sentence handed down in Qatar was "irrelevant" in Russia.
On June 1, 2004, Leonid Parfyonov, one of the leading NTV journalists, was fired from the channel allegedly for making public the decision of the channel direction that had forbidden him to present a TV interview with Malika Yandarbiyev, widow of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
References and notes
- Sergei Ivanov has promised to strive for discharge of the Russian prisoners in Qatar. Lenta.ru, March 3, 2004 (in Russian).
- Let Go by Vlad Trifonov. Kommersant, March 25, 2004.
- The Origin of Putin's Oligarchy by Vladimir Pribylovsky, Ms., October 11, 2005 (in Russian).
- Sergei Ivanov Tied to the Case of the Russians in Qatar by Mikhail Zygar. Kommersant, April 13, 2004.
- Russia 'behind Chechen murder', BBC News, 30 June, 2004
- Aslan Maskhadov Killed, Kommersant, March 09, 2005
- (Russian) Задержанные в Катаре – офицеры ГРУ, Gazeta.ru, 29th April 2004
- Convicted Russia agents 'missing', BBC News, 17 February, 2005
- Television station sacks Kremlin's last critic by Nick Paton Walsh. The Guardian, June 3, 2004.
- "It Was a Request We Couldn't Refuse" by Maria Luisa Tirmaste. Kommersant, May 31, 2004.