Imprisoned by Russian authorities and then by unidentified people somewhere in Chechnya, Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky has emerged from six weeks of detention. In interviews with RFE/RL and Russian television NTV, and a press-conference Wednesday in Moscow, Babitsky recounted his story. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 2 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Andrei Babitsky says he believes the Russian secret police were responsible for his entire ordeal.
"A badly planned action.(pause) I think this is the FSB. I cannot be positive because I don't have enough proof, but I have enough arguments that can support, in my opinion, this version. I think it's an action of revenge."
On January 16, Babitsky tried to leave Grozny, where he had been reporting on the Russian bombardment and civilian sufferings. Disguised as a refugee in torn and dirty clothes, he tried to slip out of the cordoned-off city, when he was detained by Russian military intelligence officers.
They took Babitsky's passport and press accreditation and kept him in a truck for two freezing nights, before transferring him to the Chernokozovo detention center. Also called a filtration camp, Chernokozovo has been described by former inmates as an institution of torture.
Babitsky says he was thrown into a small cell along with 13 men from a Chechen village. He says he was beaten with rubber truncheons, but was not seriously tortured.
But the screams of prisoners in neighboring cells convinced Babitsky that reports of former Chernokozovo inmates were true.
"I can tell you that the first time I was not in the hands of the special services. I was in the hands of sadists who ran a concentration camp in the village of Chernokozovo."
Babitsky describes the routine in Chernokozovo: when a new prisoner is admitted, he is forced to crawl from his cell to the interrogator, while blows from rubber truncheons rain down on him.
Babitsky says he received this treatment, and in addition his cell was filled with tear-gas, making it almost impossible to breathe.
But he says the treatment others received sounded far worse. Locked in his cell, he could only hear -- and guess at -- what his fellow inmates were going through. Babitsky says that Chechens who were suspected of collaborating with illegal armed groups were being tortured day and night to give up any information they might have.
He remembers in particular the screams of a woman who was tortured for two hours on January 19 or 20. Speaking to NTV television, Babitsky described the agonizing sound of someone suffering unendurable pain for a long time.
In another incident, he says a man was tortured for several hours. He heard guards threatening to "cut something off." The man was then dragged through the corridor.
Certain inmates were beaten regularly. One of Babitsky's cell-mates, a man from Katyr-Yurt, was summoned three times a day and beaten until his back was blue.
Babitsky had no way of knowing that he wouldn't be subjected to the same treatment.
On January 31, Babitsky says, a man who said he was from the state agency responsible for missing soldiers came to see Babitsky in jail. Babitsky describes the man, who called himself "Igor," as "a small, skinny man who looked like a crook."
Igor said Tupal Atgeriyev, a Chechen field commander, had contacted the Russians with an offer to exchange Russian soldiers for Babitsky.
Babitsky thought the proposal sounded odd, and he didn't agree immediately. He thought that he was suspected of being in league with the Chechens, and he felt it would compromise his reputation to be exchanged as a captive. But he was told he would be first released and then exchanged as a volunteer. Ultimately, he agreed to the exchange, as he knew Atgeriyev and believed that this act could free Russian soldiers.
The local prosecutor signed a release order, and legally Babitsky should have been a free man. He thought he would be allowed to go to Moscow and then exchange himself a week later.
But instead he was whisked away in a police car to Gudermes and thrown back in jail. Babitsky told Igor that he no longer agreed to the exchange under these circumstances. But Igor wouldn't listen.
"I told that guy Igor that since I spent 24 hours in custody illegally, that I wanted corresponding measures to be taken against the people who allowed such arbitrariness. I said that after that, I would be ready to go back to discussing the exchange. But it was useless to go on talking with five or six automatic guns pointed [at me]."
The Russian authorities brought Babitsky to the purported exchange, which was filmed by the FSB and shown on Russian television. But Atgeriyev was not present. Babitsky was given to masked men he did not know. Babitsky says he can only guess who these people were. He says he suspects that the ringleader was Adam Sediyev, a Chechen allied with the Russian special services, the FSB.
Babitsky says he was kept in a house somewhere in Chechnya, constantly under guard. His captors threatened him in various ways, sometimes saying they were demanding $2 million in ransom, and sometimes threatening his family.
Finally on February 23, his captors bundled him into the trunk of a Volga and drove him to Daghestan. That day was the anniversary of the Chechen deportation by Stalin, and security was tight, yet the car passed all control points easily. This bolstered Babitsky's belief that he was being held with the complicity of Russian authorities.
After a night in Makhachkala, Babitsky was given a fake Azerbaijani passport and taken to the Azerbaijani border, but the border guards refused to let him cross, saying the passport was missing a stamp.
Babitsky was then handed over to another man who was supposed to smuggle him into Azerbaijan through back roads. But the reporter managed to convince the man to take him to Makhachkala instead.
On his own in Daghestan, Babitsky was nervous. He feared to approach Russian authorities by himself, so he checked into a hotel and called RFE/RL correspondent Oleg Kusov, based in Vladikavkaz. Cut off from the world for weeks, Babitsky had no idea that his disappearance had created an international uproar. He thought he could walk around Makhachkala anonymously until Kusov arrived to meet him.
Instead, he was immediately spotted and arrested. After another harrowing two days of interrogation at the Daghestan Interior Ministry, he was charged with a new crime, use of the forged Azerbaijani passport.
Late Monday night, soon after acting President Vladimir Putin said Babitsky shouldn't be behind bars, a special Interior Ministry plane whisked him off to Moscow, where he rejoined his family.
The charges of document forgery have not been dropped, and Babitsky is not allowed to leave Moscow.