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British judge refuses to extradite Chechen envoy


MOSCOW - In a blow to Russia's bid to cast itself as a partner in the global war on terrorism, a British judge yesterday refused to extradite Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev, whom Russia has accused of terrorist acts of kidnapping and murder in the breakaway republic.

The decision, which can be appealed, brought immediate condemnation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which denounced it as "a serious blow" to Russia's partnership with Britain, "especially in the field of anti-terrorist interaction."

It was a potentially embarrassing ruling for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has sought to portray Russia as an ally with the United States and Britain in combating Islamic extremism, frequently comparing the suicide bombings, kidnappings and ambushes launched by Chechen rebels in Russia with al-Qaida terror attacks against targets in the United States and Middle East.

But Senior District Judge Timothy Workman dismissed claims brought by the Russian Federation and said he feared for Zakayev's safety if handed over to Russian custody. "I have come to the inevitable conclusion that if the [Russian] authorities are prepared to resort to torturing witnesses, there is a substantial risk that Mr. Zakayev would himself be subject to torture," the judge said.

Human rights groups applauded the ruling, noting that Chechen prisoners have died in Russian and Chechen jails.

"Torture and ill-treatment in Russian police cells, as well as the harassment of ethnic Chechens, are common and, as the representative of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, Mr. Zakayev would have been particularly vulnerable," Amnesty International said in a statement.

In Moscow, parliament deputy Sergei Kovalyov told the Interfax news service it was "absolutely obvious" that evidence against Zakayev had been obtained under torture. Kovalyov, an opposition politician and human rights activist, said the case, along with the recent arrest of former Yukos Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, demonstrates that "extremely worrisome processes are taking place in Russia."

The 44-year-old former stage actor was named deputy prime minister of Chechnya under its most recent popularly elected government in 1997, and became Maskhadov's envoy in peace negotiations after being injured in the war.

A new president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was named this year under elections heavily overseen by Russian troops, and Maskhadov is commanding a small number of guerrillas committed to ousting Russian forces from the war-battered territory.

Russian officials allege that Zakayev, who commanded rebel soldiers in southwest Chechnya during the first war with Russia, was responsible for the death of at least 300 Russian soldiers, the kidnapping of two Orthodox priests and other acts of "banditry."

Zakayev has repeatedly denied involvement in any terrorist acts.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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