LAST WEEK, the U.S. government granted political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, who was the foreign minister of an elected, moderate, separatist Chechen government and has been in exile since 1999. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that last month, one part of the government, the Department of Homeland Security, dropped its appeal against another part of the government: the immigration court in Boston that granted Mr. Akhmadov asylum months ago. The DHS appeal had little foundation. After hearing Mr. Akhmadov's case, the immigration judge pointed out that if he were returned to Russia, there was little doubt the Chechen leader would be "shot without being afforded the opportunity to defend himself in a trial, as has happened to other members of the Chechen government." The subsequent appeal was widely believed to have been made not on the merits of the case, but as a favor to the Russian government, which considers Mr. Akhmadov a terrorist.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government was displeased by the decision. "Such acts do not correspond to the friendly spirit of Russian-American relations, and do not help the joint fight against international terrorism," the Russian foreign ministry declared. The Russian press was even more displeased by the National Endowment for Democracy's recent decision to give Mr. Akhmadov a prestigious grant. "A Grant for Anti-Russian Activity," blared one headline.
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But the Bush administration's decision to drop the appeal, while politically difficult, was the right one. The official explanation is that no links could in fact be found between Mr. Akhmadov and international terrorism. More to the point, Mr. Akhmadov is well known for denouncing terrorism, for opposing the use of suicide bombs and for working, as he puts it, for a "negotiated peace" in his country. To turn him over to the Russian government for arrest, interrogation and possible execution would have meant accepting the Russian definition of all independent Chechen leaders as terrorists, a definition that simply doesn't hold up to the facts.
Contrary to Russia's accusations, the decision does not represent any radical change in Russian-American relations: No one, anywhere, is advocating any active American military or even political intervention in Chechnya. That doesn't mean, however, that the U.S. government needs to agree with every piece of Russian propaganda about the region, or, more important, to alter American laws on political asylum in accordance with Russia's demands.