-- A court in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar convicted two Russian intelligence officers Wednesday of murdering the former leader of Chechnya's separatist movement and concluded that the assassination in Qatar was ordered by Russian leaders in Moscow.
The Russian agents were spared the death penalty and sentenced to 25 years in prison for orchestrating the February car bombing that killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the one-time acting Chechen president, as he left a mosque in the Qatari capital, Doha. Russia had repeatedly accused Yandarbiyev, who had taken refuge in Qatar in preceding years, of terrorist ties but denied involvement in his death.
The ruling marked the first time in recent history that a court has found that Russia, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, itself employed terrorist tactics on foreign soil to eliminate one of its enemies.
According to people in the courtroom Wednesday, the judge presiding over the trial said that the plans for Yandarbiyev's assassination were discussed at Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow and approved by the Russian leadership.
"The civilized world today got an opportunity to see who the real terrorists are and who the real victims are," Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen resistance leader, said by telephone from Doha. In a separate interview, the widow of the slain Chechen pronounced herself satisfied with the verdict. "Justice has been done," said Malika Yandarbiyeva, adding that she was not disappointed that the court rejected the death sentence. "We're not for blood, like many Chechens. . . . For me, it's important that the world know that Russia can come to a foreign state and kill a political leader."
Russian parliamentary leaders angrily denounced the decision, claiming that the two defendants did not get a fair trial. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was more circumspect, suggesting a deal may be struck to turn the men over to Russia.
"Moscow still presumes the noninvolvement of the two Russian citizens detained in Qatar," Lavrov said in a statement. "Respecting the judicial procedures of the state of Qatar, our lawyers will file an appeal" and seek their return home.
Until his death, few Chechen guerrillas aroused more animosity in Moscow than Yandarbiyev. He served as the republic's acting president in 1996 and 1997, then fled after Putin launched Russia's second Chechen war in 1999. Yandarbiyev moved to Qatar, which resisted Russian extradition requests.
From Qatar, Yandarbiyev spoke out in favor of Chechen independence and, according to analysts, served as the guerrillas' chief Middle East fundraiser. Russia accused him of aiding the Chechen radicals who seized a Moscow theater and took 900 people hostage in October 2002.
At Russian urging, he was the first Chechen added to a U.N. list of suspected terrorists tied to the al Qaeda network. His widow denied those accusations Wednesday as "Russian lies."
Yandarbiyev, 51, was leaving Friday prayers on Feb. 13 when explosives attached to the bottom of his car detonated, killing him and burning his 13-year-old son. Qatari authorities soon arrested three Russians, later releasing one because he had diplomatic immunity.
U.S. authorities provided technical assistance to investigators on the case. Evidence collected by Qatari and U.S. agencies and presented in court showed that the Russians had been dispatched to Doha in late January, rented a van later seen at the bombing scene and had explosives smuggled across the Saudi border in a Russian diplomatic vehicle. A witness at the mosque identified one of the suspects as sitting behind the wheel of the van nearby at the time of the explosion. The two Russians confessed under interrogation.
Russian officials acknowledged that the two men were intelligence officers but said they were only in the country to help collect information on terrorism. Their lawyers contended that the confessions were obtained by using torture, including the setting of dogs on the men when they were in prison. They had rented the van to go on a picnic, according to the lawyers, who called the witness identification unreliable.
"The bottom line is there is no evidence in the case file at all," Dmitri Afanasiev, a defense attorney, said by telephone from Doha. "The only evidence . . . is the tortured confessions."
The Russians' defense team, which included former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh, asserted that the Qataris manufactured a case against their clients so that the government would appear to be firmly in control of civil order.