Russia - Terrorism takes Front Stage

Wednesday, 4 June, 2003
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

On October 23 last year, a Moscow audience was enjoying the Russian capital's latest theatrical craze - the musical, 'Nord Ost' - when the unthinkable happened. A group of 50 terrorists, brandishing guns and wired with explosives, laid siege to the theatre. The siege went on for days as the whole world watched, waiting to see how the hundreds of hostages could be saved. Russian special forces pumped a powerful knockout gas into the theatre and, while they slept, the terrorists were eliminated one by one with a shot to the head. More than 100 of the captives also died, poisoned by the gas. But for the Russian Government and President Vladimir Putin, this was a proud achievement - a courageous stand in the global war against terror.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: (Translation): Russia will never make any agreements with terrorists, it will also never give in to blackmail.

But more than six months after the incident at the Moscow theatre, there are many unanswered questions about the terrorist siege, perhaps the most serious of which is why all the sleeping terrorists were eliminated before they could be questioned.

AKHMED ZAKAEV, CHECHEN ENVOY TO EUROPE: (Translation): Why would Russian secret services need… to kill all hostage-takers when they’d been rendered harmless? They were practically helpless and defenceless. They were simply killed in their sleep. I think it was preferable to keep them alive so they could answer the many questions that we and the Russian public are asking now.

Akhmed Zakaev was a Chechen Government minister before becoming a rebel field commander in the armed struggle against the Russian army. But he once had a very different career.

AKHMED ZAKAYEV:(Translation): My former profession is one of the most humane. I used to be a theatre actor. I graduated from a school of choreography.

Now, Zakaev has been thrust onto the international stage, cast as Russia's most-wanted terrorist. In fact, for a time, Russian authorities accused him of masterminding the 'Nord Ost' theatre siege - an allegation he strongly denies.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: (Translation): Of course not. Of course, it isn't true. After the tragedy of September 11, Russia really … That was one of their primary goals, to cast us as International Terrorists.

Eight years on from his time as a rebel commander Russia now wants to extradite Zakaev from London to face charges of murdering over 300 policemen during the first Chechen war. But he says it's the Russian Government that has the most blood on its hands.

AKHMED ZAKAEV:(Translation): In the first Russian – Chechen war... the number of victims was far more than 300 policemen. Among the Chechen civilians it was more than 100,000…

But the Kremlin says crimes against civilians are being investigated. Official presidential spokesman, Alexander Machevsky, says anyone accused of war crimes will be tried in Russian courts.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY, PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE SPOKESMAN: The crimes that committed in Chechnya, whoever they are, bureaucrats, military, law enforcement, bandits or terrorists will be investigated and these people will be caught and courted.

As Akhmed Zakaev sits in his hotel room observing the Iraq war - live - the war in Chechnya - his war - continues to exact a far heavier toll but out of sight of the world's media.

AKHMED ZAKAEV:(Translation): From 2001 till now more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in Chechnya. And all with the silent approval of the international community.

Zakaev calls himself a freedom fighter, but says he's committed to a peaceful political solution for Chechnya. That's rejected by the Russian Government which likens him to Osama bin Laden.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: What we have in his accusations is definitely not a political accusation, it's accusation in torturing person, particularly shoving his fingers off, if you want to know, particular accusation in fighting against Russian law enforcement and also the having, the attempting assassination of the representative of the law enforcement, so these kind of accusations are not political, they are criminal.

Yet just six years ago, the Russians negotiated a formal peace treaty with those they now call terrorists, when Boris Yeltsin recognised the elected Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov. Russia's military and security services had been humiliated by the war and the peace treaty. They were determined that a bunch of Moslem rebels weren't going to threaten Russia's sovereignty. Days after Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister in September 1999, terrorist bombs ripped through several apartment buildings, killing hundreds of sleeping victims. As Dateline revealed in a broadcast two weeks ago, there's compelling evidence to suggest that Russia's security service, the FSB, were involved in the bombings. Even leading politicians have been urging the government to hold an official inquiry to investigate the claims. Their suspicions were heightened earlier this year, when Sergei Yushenkov - one of the politicians pressuring the government over the bombing claims - was assassinated.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: (Translation): Nobody doubts by now those were special operations of the Russian secret service aimed at launching the second military campaign and bringing to power a completely unknown FSB colonel Vladimir Putin. That was the purpose of these operations.

But Russia's official response was to blame the Chechen rebels for the terrorist blasts, and Putin commenced the second Chechen war.

LORD FRANK JUDD, COUNCIL OF EUROPE: It's been a cruel, bloody, vicious civil war - that's the only way to describe it.

Lord Frank Judd is a former British defence minister and a prominent member of the Council of Europe. His job as the Council's rapporteur for Chechnya gave him rare access to the horrors of this hidden war.

LORD JUDD: The visions of the human situation there will be with me all my life. I mean, I can see the people, I can see Grozny. I was one of the first people from the outside world into Grozny after the bombardment. Those things will be with me for the rest of my life. I can't walk away from it.

Within weeks of the start of the war, atrocities from both sides were being reported. A German television station was the first to broadcast evidence of mass graves in Chechnya. Later, Amnesty International accused the Russian army of summary executions, rape and torture.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: Right now there is around 70 criminal cases sent to court against the military personnel. Around 53 people, 53 military personnel are being sentenced for the crimes against civil population, including about 10 officers.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO, FORMER FSB OFFICER: The main issue that stops Putin ending this war is his fear he'll be blamed for the crimes of the last three years. A huge number of people were kidnapped and killed.

Alexander Litvinenko was a lieutenant colonel in Russia's Federal Security Bureau, the FSB, and served with them in Chechnya. He has written a book exposing FSB crimes, detailing their links with Russia's mafia, drug running and the assassination of politicians. He went public with his expose after being ordered by the FSB to kill the Russian oligarch and billionaire Boris Berezovsky, an arch rival of President Putin.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): He leant over to me, like that. “You must kill Berezovsky. You must do it personally.”

After fleeing Russia, Litvinenko now lives in exile in London where he's become a harsh critic of the Russian Government and its secret services. He believes that President Putin is afraid that he'll be blamed for Russia's war crimes in Chechnya.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO:(Translation): He ordered those crimes. Putin is more guilty than Milosevic. And he knows he could be next in line after Milosevic.

For almost two years prior to the 'Nord Ost' siege, Chechen representatives had been presenting evidence to European investigators about war crimes and, finally, their claims were being listened to.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): There'd been a meeting between Zakaev and Mrs del Ponte, she's the prosecutor on the Yugoslavian case. That had frightened the Kremlin a lot. Zakaev got listened to in the Euro Parliament and people looked at the Chechen problem with different eyes.

LORD FRANK JUDD: There is still no cease-fire, there are still no meaningful negotiations for a peace settlement and still the altogether too-convincing allegations of human rights violations...

The momentum for European investigations into war crimes was reaching a peak just as the 'Nord Ost' siege occurred.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): That thing with Nord-Ost happened when Zakaev and the Chechens got recognised in Europe.

Litvinenko believes the FSB were involved in the 'Nord Ost' siege and, although he has no hard evidence, he raises a series of questions about the government's account. He believes it's ludicrous to suggest that armed terrorists could cross Moscow unnoticed.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): There's no way 50 armed people from the Caucasus could gather and cross Moscow undetected in their camouflage uniforms. The closest comparison is if Osama bin Laden gathered 30 Afghan fighters, arrived in Washington, drove across it, weapons out, and stormed some building. Can you imagine Bin Laden driving through Moscow?

Despite a 6-month investigation, the Government still won't respond to questions like these.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: We have the information, but again I would like to leave it for the investigation and, as soon as the investigation will be over, we'll definitely make it available for the public.

Litvinenko also raises questions about two of the terrorists involved in the siege, who appear to have mysteriously disappeared. A former secret service colleague, Mikhail Trepashkin, was called by the FSB to the Moscow morgue to identify two terrorists known as Abdul the Bloody and Abu Bakar, whom he'd dealt with before as FSB informants. But their bodies couldn't be found.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): When they tried to find them among the dead terrorists, they weren't there. The FSB got its agents out. So the FSB agents among Chechens organised the whole thing on FSB orders, and those agents were released.

Litvinenko is convinced from his own experiences inside the FSB and from contacts still serving in the security bureau, that they are capable of directly organising such an act of terrorism.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): The rest of the terrorists were run blind". It's a standard term used by all secret service officers. A man is "run blind" by a secret service...

Litvinenko claims that the missing Chechens - Abdul the Bloody and Abu Bakar - were FSB agents who hatched up the idea of the theatre siege and persuaded other Chechens to join them without disclosing their real connections.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): Those terrorists who died, they were run blind by Abdul and Abu Bakar who we know work for the FSB, the Federal Security Bureau of the Russian Federation.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: It's not serious. It's again from those theories that people try to make up. They're trying to make the government somehow to react to make that as a topic, but this is not a topic to discuss.

This extraordinary series of allegations are also being pursued by an unofficial committee of Russia's parliament and local journalists. Dateline has put every one of them to the Russian Government but their spokesman declined to answer them directly. However, he does confirm that the missing Abu Bakar was present at the siege - in fact, he was the ringleader.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: I won't comment on that, and I also don't want to comment on anything that Mr Litvinenko says but, returning to the Abu Bakar, we believe that that was the real kind of force behind the terrorist acts in 'Nord Ost'.

When Russian special forces filled the theatre with their poisonous concoction of gas, there was no way out. Along with the hostages, every single one of the terrorist gang was put to sleep. Minutes later, whilst unconscious, they were executed one by one.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): Not a single law, not a single Russian law under any circumstances allows, under no circumstances, does it allow killing somebody who offers no resistance.

According to the Kremlin, the executions were performed to prevent the terrorists from detonating the explosives strapped to their bodies.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: Every terrorist inside the hall where the bombs actually were had this special button and they could actually ignite the bombs at any time.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): They say they had bombs, so they had to shoot them. But what about detonation? A shot can detonate it and make it explode. Shooting them is riskier than arresting them. They were asleep. They should have removed their bombs. Handcuff them, get their bombs and arrest them.

But in response, the Government now claims, the gas which also killed more than 100 of the hostages didn't actually put the terrorists to sleep.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: Well, it's easy for us to say to disarm these people - when you have the man as a walking bomb, I strongly doubt that. and also this sleep is a very, is not a good word for that. They were...let's say this, almost unconscious. They were this, um, what you might call it, disoriented.

According to Litvinenko, the hostage-takers were shot to conceal the truth about the FSB's involvement in the affair.

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO: (Translation): They were shot. Why? Somebody found their evidence uncomfortable. They'd have said who supplied them, where they stayed, who got them to the Nord Ost, who armed them, how they met in Moscow, and the FSB involvement would have emerged. That's why they were killed. Because they weren't killed as terrorists, the FSB killed them as witnesses.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: It was an act of desperation. But I think behind all that, there was a plot run by the Russian secret service.

Throughout the drama, the Chechen leadership denied any connection with the terrorist siege - in fact, they condemned it. Akhmed Zakaev says the only benefit was to the Russian side.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: What we should ask is, who profited from it happening when it did? It was to the benefit of those who argued for continuation of the Russian-Chechen conflict, and who for the last three years have been trying to present the Chechen people's fight for independence as a struggle against international terrorism.

Zakaev may well plead innocence in the 'Nord Ost' affair but for a time he was actually accused of planning and directing the terrorist siege. When it happened, Zakaev was in Copenhagen, lobbying for the Chechen cause. The day after the siege ended, Zakaev was arrested by Danish police after Russia requested his extradition.

GENNADY SELEZNOV,RUSSIAN DUMA CHAIRMAN: (Translation): Zakaev was arrested in Denmark at the request of our Attorney General’s Office. Our investigators are impatient. We want him extradited to Russia as soon as possible.

But the delight of the Russians was short lived and a month after his arrest a Danish court rejected the Russian case, claiming there was no evidence. When Zakaev flew to London, the Russians immediately requested his extradition again, but this time they curiously dropped the accusations about 'Nord Ost'.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: Definitely, um, uh, in London, the accusations against Zakaev were more clarified and they kind of got the real judicial shape that I didn't want to go inside too deep because this is up to the Russian prosecutor's office.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: When I flew to England I knew what would be in store for me. But I went into it with my eyes open.

Zakaev's extradition case will be decided by a London court next week. It's excited a lot of interest in Britain where his supporters, like actor Vanessa Redgrave, are proclaiming his innocence.

VANESSA REDGRAVE, ACTOR: He's an elected leader He's an elected leader, his president was elected in 1997, recognised by every European government, committed no crime, cleared by all security services including the Russian security services.

Lord Judd also questions the Kremlin's motives in pursuing Zakaev as a criminal.

LORD FRANK JUDD: What I do know is that in the conversations which I've had over the past 3.5 years about the future of Chechnya, he was one of the people with whom it was possible to have the most intelligent, imaginative, sensible discussions about a political way forward. I therefore have to ask myself whether it was altogether accidental that he was taken out of the process at the structure.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: (Translation): I have a twofold status - On one hand I'm special envoy of Aslan Maskhadov, the President of the Chechen Republic, on the other hand I'm here as a man awaiting extradition.

Despite his legal struggle, Akhmed Zakaev continues his work as official envoy to the Chechen President. Today, he's meeting Lord Akhmet, at Britain's House of Lords. lobbying for a political solution to the war. But he thinks that's unlikely while President Vladimir Putin remains in power.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: (Translation): I think that while Putin holds power and the current regime survives I'm sure that acts of terrorism will keep happening in Russia. I'm certain of that. The current regime benefits from them. They came to power and they stay in power on the wave of those tragedies.

But for the Russians, it's the Chechens who are responsible for the terrorism.

ALEXANDER MACHEVSKY: As for colleagues of Mr Zakaev, well, you call them rebels, I call them bandits. You have to excuse me, but I know perhaps a little bit more about them than you do. But yes, they will not surrender because there is too much blood on their hands and they don't have a choice. They either will be captured and courted and sentenced by the court, that they didn't give a chance to some other people they executed, or they will be destroyed.

More than six months after the deadly theatre siege, there are now two starkly different views about who was responsible. Either the Russian Government's official account of desperate Chechen terrorists is accepted, or the Kremlin is covering up evidence of its own involvement.

LORD FRANK JUDD: I'm rather doubtful as to whether we will ever know what really happened and who really organised what and who really is involved and who really isn't involved. I mean, I think there is a lot of treachery in the Chechen story.

With the Council of Europe still pushing for the establishment of an independent war crimes tribunal, the Chechen rebels are confident they'll soon have their day in an international court.

AKHMED ZAKAEV: Either I am international terrorist number 2 after Osama bin Laden, or Vladimir Putin is a military criminal second only to Milosevic. And let the court make this decision. I'm ready for the court to consider these two questions, but is the Russian President? Time will tell.