In a rebuff to Russia's efforts to cast the Chechen conflict as a war on terrorism, Denmark today rejected Moscow's request to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, a leading representative of Chechnya's government in exile.
Danish officials said Russia's month-long effort to link Zakayev to terrorist acts did not produce enough evidence to justify his return.
Zakayev, a 43-year-old emissary of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, had been held since Oct. 30 at Russia's request on charges of armed insurrection, kidnapping and execution of civilians in Chechnya. Russia also initially accused him of involvement in the rebel seizure of a Moscow theater that left 128 hostages dead.
In a statement, the Danish Justice Ministry said Russia's case against Zakayev was imprecise and might have been based on secondhand accounts.
Zakayev's release was a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who had vowed to hunt down Chechen rebels wherever they were harbored.
Although Zakayev's supporters described him as a statesman who advocated a peaceful solution to the long-running Chechen conflict, Russian prosecutors said he once headed a rebel gang that killed civilians. The prosecutors denounced Denmark's decision.
"It seems Denmark has its own interpretation over how one fights international terrorism, which differs from that shared by the rest of the world," said Leonid Troshin, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office.
Meanwhile, controversy mounted over Russia's treatment of tens of thousands of Chechen refugees living in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. The refugees have been sitting out the three-year-old conflict in tent camps near the Chechen border, either too impoverished or too afraid of Russian soldiers to return home.
Russian officials have long said the refugee camps provide cover for Chechen rebels and over the past six months have steadily stepped up the pressure on refugees to depart.
Officials working for the Moscow-appointed Chechen government said Russia has set an unofficial deadline of the end of December to dismantle the camps.
A camp that closed today formerly housed more than 1,500 Chechens near the village of Aki-Yurt, less than two miles from the Chechen border. Russian officials declared that the refugees had all agreed to resettle, but human rights advocates said the refugees were forced to pack up and leave.
Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said his organization was extremely concerned. "We urged the Russian authorities not to close the camp," he said. "Unfortunately, our pleas have been ignored."