Denmark releases Chechen rebel envoy

  • 2002-12-05
  • James Hossack

Denmark rejected a Russian request to extradite top Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev on terrorism charges, releasing the rebel negotiator Dec. 3 and prompting Moscow to describe the decision as political.

"The Russian request, as presented to the Danish authorities, cannot be complied with under Danish law and the European Convention from 1957 on extradition," the Danish Justice Ministry said in a statement.

The statement cited a lack of evidence against Zakayev, an envoy of rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and shed doubt on witness statements supporting the Russian extradition request.

"Mr. Zakayev has been released from custody and is now free to leave Denmark," it added. The rebel negotiator's lawyer, Erik Birk Nielsen, said Zakayev was still in Copenhagen and would at some point speak to the press.

He said that Zakayev was considering filing an application for asylum in Denmark and also whether to file for damages for his five-week detention.

Zakayev was arrested on Oct. 30 by Danish police acting on a Russian arrest warrant that initially accused him of involvement in the Moscow theater siege earlier that month that left 128 people dead, as well as various other attacks by Chechen rebels in the late 1990s.

In Moscow, the decision to release Zakayev was met with anger.

"It seems that this decision was based on political, rather than legal, matters," Interfax news agency reported Justice Minister Yury Chaika as saying.

"It was clear from the start that by dragging out this process, the Danish side had no intention of handing Zakayev over to Russia," Chaika said.

"I am convinced that Denmark had all the necessary evidence to extradite."

The Danish side was equally dismissive of the Russian case against Zakayev. "Most of the witness statements against Zakayev were marked by a lack of precision," the Danish Justice Ministry said in its statement.

The ministry furthermore doubted whether some of the witness statements were from people who had been "an actual witness to the crimes or whether the statement is based on information received from other persons."

The Danish Foreign Ministry said that it had summoned the Russian ambassador to explain its decision.

The Dec. 3 release looks set to further sour relations between the two countries, strained for more than a month since Denmark refused to ban a Chechen conference in the Danish capital at which Zakayev was speaking.

Shortly after the conference, Danish police, acting on an international arrest warrant, swooped down on Zakayev, holding him while Russia filed an extradition request alleging involvement in terrorist activities.

But Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said he thought the issue would not cause further diplomatic ructions with Moscow.

"There have been problems in our relations with Russia, but I don't think that we will have new problems," he told the Danish news agency Ritzau.

Moeller also justified the Danish decision to act on the international arrest warrant against Zakayev: "It's clear that we must arrest people accused of being involved in active terrorism," he added.

But Danish opposition parties immediately demanded the government issue an apology to Zakayev for his stay in custody.

Russian officials also vowed to appeal the decision to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, the Interfax news agency reported.

"Since we cannot appeal this decision in Denmark we plan to ask for an arbitration hearing to be scheduled in the European court," an official from the office of the prosecutor general said.

"It seems that Denmark has its own interpretation over how one fights international terrorism, which differs from that shared by the rest of the world," spokesman Leonid Troshin added.

"I do not think anyone has any doubts that Zakayev is a terrorist."

The 43-year-old Zakayev led the only brief, direct political negotiation between Russian and Chechya, held on the outskirts of Moscow late last year.

The talks failed to produce a breakthrough, with Chechnya sticking to its independence claims and Russia demanding that the guerrillas disarm.