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Russia: Charges Remain Against Babitsky

Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky has been released from Russian custody on condition that he not leave Moscow. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the charges against him have not been dropped, and his legal difficulties are not over.

Moscow, 29 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since January 16, Andrei Babitsky is not a prisoner.

He spent last night in his Moscow home with his young daughter. His wife, Lyudmila, joined him there today (Tuesday).

The war correspondent has survived a six-week ordeal since he was arrested by Russian forces while leaving Grozny, handed over to masked men in an alleged swap for Russian prisoners of war, and finally released from custody late Monday.

Babitsky says that it is too early to rejoice over his release. He told RFE/RL today that the case against him is not closed and that he considers his freedom precarious.

"I feel all right, but I wouldn't hurry with congratulating me on my liberation because law-enforcement officials still consider, on quite insignificant grounds, that they need to investigate my case further. For the moment, my movements are limited to Moscow."

Russian authorities had been holding Babitsky in a detention center in Daghestan since Friday, when he was arrested in the Daghestani capital Makhachkala and charged with using a false passport.

But just a few hours after acting President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that it was "inexpedient" to hold Babitsky in custody, authorities changed their original order that he be detained pending trial. They put Babitsky on an empty Interior Ministry plane to Moscow, without informing his wife or lawyers.

Babitsky's lawyers and colleagues had protested his detention. Under Russian law, only possibly dangerous suspects or those who might try to flee are supposed to be kept in pre-trial detention.

One of Babitsky's lawyers, Aleksandr Zazulya, had said Monday that he would file an official complaint. Babitsky himself had said he would start a hunger strike in protest.

While Babitsky is now out of custody, Russian law-enforcement officials have made it clear that his release could be reversed. The Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's office have said they could add to the charges levied against Babitsky. Before he was released, Babitsky signed a document agreeing that he would not leave Moscow until the charges are settled.

Babitsky angered Russian generals with his eyewitness reporting of the bombardment of Chechnya. His disappearance in mid-January came two days after he reported heavy civilian casualties. Russian authorities denied having Babitsky in custody for two weeks, then they said they had given him to Chechen militants in exchange for Russian prisoners of war -- an action that sparked international condemnation.

After weeks of uncertainty about where he was and whether he was alive, Babitsky resurfaced on Friday in Makhachkala, where he was charged with traveling on false documents.