Wednesday, June 30, 2004

DOHA, Qatar — A Qatari court convicted two Russian intelligence officers yesterday in the assassination of a Chechen rebel leader and ordered them to spend 25 years in prison.

The judge in the case said the plot to assassinate Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a former Chechen president and rebel leader, was carried out with the approval of the “Russian leadership” and coordinated between Moscow and the Russian Embassy in Qatar.

Mr. Yandarbiyev, who had been linked to terrorism by Russia, the United States and the United Nations, was killed in a February car bombing that also injured his teenage son. The Russian officers were arrested soon after.

Russia has denied involvement in Mr. Yandarbiyev’s killing and has said the defendants, who have not been officially identified, were agents gathering intelligence about terrorism.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, reiterated Moscow’s stance that the defendants had nothing to do with Mr. Yandarbiyev’s killing, the Interfax news agency reported.

“Respecting the judicial procedures of the government of Qatar, our lawyers will appeal with the aim of reconsidering the ruling,” he said.

Lawyer Mohsen al-Suweidy, head of the defense team that also included Russian lawyers, said he had expected his clients eventually to be acquitted.

The trial began in April in Qatar’s Supreme Criminal Court and concluded with the court issuing the life sentences yesterday. Time in jail is set at a maximum of 25 years for those sentenced to life.

Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty in a case that had threatened to strain relations between Russia and Qatar, a tiny-oil rich state that is a close ally of the United States.

The defense team will seek to have the two returned to Russia to serve their sentences, the law firm Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasyev & Partners said in a statement quoted by Interfax.

Before giving his verdict, Judge Ibrahim al-Nasr asked the Russian men if they wanted to say anything. They reiterated their not-guilty pleas.

They showed little emotion when Judge al-Nasr read the verdict, and were immediately removed through a back door.

In a statement before the sentencing, Akhmed Zakayev, an aide to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, said the intelligence officers “fulfilled the order of their government.”

“Today’s decision by the Qatari court will show whether the Russian government itself can justifiably be called a terrorist organization,” he said.

Mr. Yandarbiyev, Chechnya’s acting president in 1996-97, had lived in Qatar since 2000. Moscow had sought his extradition on charges of terrorism and links to al Qaeda. The United Nations and Washington had also linked him to terrorism.

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