In Qatar, Standing Up to Putin
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, March 16, 2004; Page A21
DOHA, Qatar -- The tough-guy tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime became clear here just over a month ago, when a team of Russian agents allegedly assassinated a former Chechen leader with a car bomb as he was returning home from Friday prayers at a mosque.
The Russians haven't engaged in this sort of "wet work" outside their borders since the bad old days of the KGB. Indeed, in the midst of denying that the new Russian intelligence service was responsible, a spokesman said they "had not taken part in such actions" since 1959.
But the Qatari government caught the Russians red-handed, so to speak. And what's more, rather than cave to intense pressure from Moscow, little Qatar decided to stand firm and insist on the rule of law. A Qatari prosecutor filed criminal charges against two Russians, and a trial is scheduled here this week. U.S. sources say that quiet negotiations have been going on to arrange a compromise. And it's possible that once the trial is over, some face-saving deal will be reached.
The Qatar case, disclosed here in detail for the first time by U.S. and Arab sources, illustrates just how far Putin has gone in unleashing his beloved siloviki -- the security services at the center of his regime. With Putin's overwhelming election victory last weekend, the world should take a careful look at what the Russians did here -- and demand that such activities stop.
The assassination victim was a Chechen guerrilla leader named Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. He was acting president of the separatist regime in Chechnya in 1996 and '97, and the Russians allege that after he fled to Qatar about three years ago, he continued to help fund Chechen terrorists. The United Nations included him last year on a list of people with links to al Qaeda.
The Russians had been asking Qatar to extradite Yandarbiyev. The Qataris responded by asking the Russians for evidence of his terrorist activities -- saying that they would then try Yandarbiyev in their own courts. Just a week before the assassination, the Russians are said to have agreed that he be tried in Qatar. But by then the car bomb that killed him had already been delivered.
On Friday, Feb. 13, Yandarbiyev went to a mosque with his 13-year-old son. While they were inside, a two-kilogram bomb was attached to the underside of his Toyota Land Cruiser. When the Chechen had driven several hundred yards toward home, the bomb exploded. Yandarbiyev died on the way to a hospital; his son survived with severe burns.
The Qataris cracked the case thanks to good luck and sloppy Russian tradecraft. People had seen a van near the mosque, and police were able to trace it to a car-rental agency at the Doha airport, where video cameras had recorded the renters. The Qataris soon closed in on a villa that had been rented recently by a Russian diplomat but that didn't have diplomatic status. The Qataris were also monitoring the Russians' calls, from cell phones that had been falsely acquired in the names of two Europeans.
The Russians, both military officers in their mid-thirties, were captured at the villa several days after the bombing. They had been sent to Qatar as temporary embassy staffers about a month before the attack, and they lacked diplomatic immunity. A third alleged Russian conspirator was saved by his official status at their embassy on Sudan Street here.
The two Russian officers are said to have confessed, and to have named several senior officers who sent them. The confessions apparently were obtained through clever interrogation, not strong-arm tactics. The explosives, it turned out, had been carried in a Russian diplomatic vehicle across the Saudi border about a month before the attack.
After the Russians were caught, top officials in Moscow waged a public and private campaign to intimidate Qatar into releasing the agents. Two senior Russian officials even suggested that military force might be used to free the men. Seeking bargaining chips, the Russians also grabbed two unlucky Qatari wrestlers who happened to be passing through Moscow on their way to a competition in Serbia.
Qatar didn't budge. Perhaps the Qataris shouldn't have granted exile to an al Qaeda sympathizer such as Yandarbiyev in the first place, but that doesn't excuse Russia's outrageous actions.
The war on terrorism is escalating, and authorities from Madrid to Moscow will be tempted to cut legal corners in pursuing a ruthless enemy. At such a moment, it's good to see a small desert sheikdom insisting on the rule of law.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company