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Middle East: Qatari Court Finds Russian Agents Guilty Of Yandarbiev Assassination

A Qatari court yesterday found two Russian intelligence officers guilty of assassinating former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Yandarbiev, who served as Chechnya’s president from 1996 to 1997, died in a car-bomb attack in Qatar in February as he was returning from Friday prayers at a local mosque. His 13-year-old son survived the blast with injuries. Yandarbiev had lived in the Gulf state with his family for the past three years and was believed to be a key fundraiser for the Chechen armed resistance. Both Russian agents were sentenced to 25 years in jail.

Prague, 1 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's conviction of two Russian intelligence agents in Yandarbiev's murder is -- at the very least -- an embarrassment for Moscow.

Judge Ibrahim al-Nisf sentenced Anatolii Belashkov and Vassilii Bogachev to 25-year prison terms -- the country's maximum sentence, short of the death penalty.

Al-Nisf said the court had been lenient in not ordering the death penalty, as the prosecution has requested. He added the two agents had been acting on orders from the Russian authorities.

Yandarbiev's wife, Malika Yandarbieva, in an interview with RFE/RL, expressed her satisfaction at the verdict.

"The most important thing is that the court was able to expose this crime -- despite all the pressure, and despite a whole team from the Russian side that was there to protect the criminals from punishment," she said. "That is the most important thing for me."

While professing no regrets at Yandarbiev's demise, the Russian authorities have always maintained the innocence of the two convicted men, although Moscow has acknowledged they were its agents.

The speed with which Belashkov and Bogachev were arrested by the Qatari authorities has raised many questions. Ultimately, the end of their trial answers few of them.

The first question is whether the convicted agents really were acting on orders from the Kremlin -- and if they were, why did they do such a poor job that they got caught? Moscow seems to have spent a lot of money and resources to provide Belashkov and Bogachev with skilled lawyers for their trial.

But the execution of their "mission" -- if that is what it was -- seems anything but skilled.

Journalist Sanobar Shematova covers Chechnya for the "Moscow News.” She says, "It's a very strange story. Former intelligence agents quoted in the Russian media say Russian agents, Russian spies, simply could not work this unprofessionally abroad. And since they could not possibly have acted this unprofessionally, this is about something else. There is some kind of intrigue that we don't know about. That's one possibility. The other possibility is that the state of our special services is such that they received the order to liquidate Yandarbiev and they did it incompetently. Personally, I don't know which point of view I favor."

Another question is why the two agents, acting out of the Russian Embassy in Qatar, were not issued diplomatic passports. One Russian diplomat originally implicated in Yandarbiev's killing did have diplomatic immunity and as a result was allowed to return to Moscow without questioning. Why did the Kremlin leave its two agents so exposed?

Yet another question concerns the role of the United States. Unconfirmed reports at the start of the trial said the United States assisted Qatar in tracking down the killers. At a time when Russia and the United States are said to be united in their "war on terror," such a move would surely be perceived by the Kremlin as unfriendly. No one is discussing anything publicly.

Shermatova says: "There was also a big role played by the United States, which was talked about at the beginning of the trial. What exactly was that role? It seems all the parties -- the United States, Russia, and Qatar -- have agreed not to reveal their true roles in the operation to liquidate Zelimkhan Yandarbiev."

Lastly, there has been much talk in the Russian media about the possible future pardon or release of the two convicted men to Moscow's custody.

"There is information to the effect that the emir of Qatar and the Russian president have had an understanding since the beginning. And according to this, the two men would be convicted and then -- after a period of time -- the two Russians would be pardoned and the incident closed to everyone's satisfaction."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking yesterday from Jakarta, Indonesia, said Moscow will make all efforts to have its compatriots "return to the Motherland."

(Andrei Babitsky, from RFE/RL's Russian Service, contributed to this report.)

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