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Russia: Relatives, Chechen Leaders Question Official Version Of Raduev's Death

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Chechen field commander Salman Raduev, sentenced to life in prison a year ago for a spectacular hostage-taking incident in 1996, died on 14 December in the Russian city of Solikamsk. Although Russian authorities claim the death was natural, Raduev's relatives and representatives of the Chechen separatist leadership believe he was murdered by his keepers.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Salman Raduev, a separatist field commander who won fame for performing a series of armed forays against Russian troops in the first Chechen war, died on 14 December. Russian Justice Ministry officials say the 36-year-old guerrilla leader, who was serving a life sentence at the Solikamsk high-security prison in the Urals, died of internal hemorrhaging. Raduev's death occurred a few days after he had reportedly complained about circulatory trouble and had been taken to a hospital.

Russian media today quoted the Justice Ministry as saying Raduev had been under medical observation for the four days preceding his death on Saturday, but that doctors could not save his life.

The Chechenpress separatist news agency, however, suggested that Raduev was killed in prison by his keepers. "The moratorium on the death penalty has expired for Raduev," the agency wrote on 14 December, referring to Moscow's commitment made before the Council of Europe to no longer carry out death sentences pending the formal abolition of capital punishment.

Speaking to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Raduev's wife, Lida, said she has no doubt her husband was murdered. Radueva said that when she visited him for the last time two months ago, Raduev did not once complain about his health. "I believe this is a new, false statement given by the Russian authorities and secret services because my husband, Salman Raduev, had never had any health problems. The only problem he had was that he had been wounded in the face in 1996. I think the Russians killed him," Radueva said.

Russian Deputy Justice Minister Yurii Kalinin said an autopsy had confirmed that Raduev died of natural causes. He denied rumors that Raduev had been beaten or killed.

Russian officials have already warned that Raduev's body will not be returned to his family but will instead be buried in a common grave at Solikamsk cemetery. Following the October hostage crisis in Moscow, the Russian State Duma approved a bill that prevents the bodies of what the law calls "terrorists" from being claimed by their relatives.

Radueva said her husband was not a terrorist and that his body should be returned to his family.

Raduev is the second Chechen separatist leader to die in a Russian prison this year. On 20 August, the security minister in the separatist government, Turpal-Ali Atgeriev, officially died of a stroke in his Yekaterinburg prison cell while serving a 15-year sentence. His relatives claim he was tortured to death.

In a telephone interview from London with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Akhmed Zakaev, the chief emissary of the president of the separatist Chechen leadership Aslan Maskhadov, said that he, too, believes Raduev was killed in his cell. "This is not the first time that [sort of thing has] happened since the beginning of the second [Chechen] military campaign. Several officials of the Chechen leadership have already been exterminated that way. Unlike Atgeriev and Raduev, some of them have not even gone through this farce that is called a trial. [One day in May 2000], the speaker of our parliament, [Ruslan] Alikhadzhiev, was called outside his home and taken away. Nobody has heard from him since then," Zakaev said.

The Chechen separatist leadership believes Alikhadzhiev died two years ago from torture in Moscow's high-security Lefortovo prison. Russia's Federal Security Service, which controls the prison, denies the claim.

Both Atgeriev and Raduev had been tried and sentenced for their role in the January 1996 Kizlyar hostage taking in Daghestan. The crisis was one of the most decisive setbacks suffered by Russian troops during the first Chechen campaign. A rescue operation attempted by federal forces proved unsuccessful, and the crisis eventually ended with the deaths of 78 people.

A few months later, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to a peace accord that cleared the way for the election of Maskhadov as president of the breakaway republic.

Criticized by the separatist leadership for his lack of discipline, Raduev had survived several assassination attempts during the first Chechen war. Alleged implants of titanium plates after a serious face injury reportedly won him the nickname "Titanic."

Sidelined by the leadership of the breakaway republic, Raduev had taken virtually no part in the second Chechen campaign, which started three years ago. Arrested in March 2000 in Chechnya, the guerrilla leader was taken to Moscow and given a life sentence after a yearlong pretrial detention.

Raduev had since then given several interviews to Russian media in which he blamed other Chechen field commanders for their alleged thirst for power, and he showed signs of repentance for the Kizlyar hostage taking. He was reportedly working on a book about the Chechen war.

Both the Moscow-based online news magazine and the daily "Vremya novostei" report that a prosecutor had recently visited Raduev to question him about Zakaev, whom Moscow wants extradited from Britain on charges of terrorism. "Whether the prosecutor got the information he wanted [from Raduev], and which methods he used to get it, is unclear," wrote on 14 December.

"Vremya novostei" today suggested that Raduev, after being forced to give all the information requested from him, was therefore "no longer needed" by the Russian authorities and killed.

Also today, the liberal "Kommersant" daily said that "the real reason for Raduev's death will probably never be known."

(Aslan Dukaev and Fatima Saidulkhadzhieva of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)