LONDON – A Chechen leader wanted in Russia on charges of terrorism and murder has been granted refugee status in Britain, the government said Saturday. A British judge had rejected a Russian government request to extradite Akhmed Zakayev earlier this month, saying he risked being tortured if he was sent back.
We can confirm that Mr. Zakayev has been granted refugee status,” a Home Office spokesman said. He did not give further details.
Moscow alleges that Zakayev, 44, was a senior Chechen military commander who fought against Russian forces between October 1995 and December 2000. He is wanted in Russia on 13 charges, including kidnapping and taking part in the murder of more than 300 militia officers.
Zakayev denies all the charges. Supporters say he is a peace negotiator and a minister in the government of Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997.
He was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport in December 2002, but released after a supporter, actress Vanessa Redgrave, paid $85,000 bail.
Zakayev’s lawyers fought his extradition, saying he would be persecuted for his political beliefs and would not receive a fair trial. At Bow Street Magistrates Court on Nov. 13, District Judge Timothy Workman agreed.
“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,” he said.
Chechnya has been wracked by violence for the last decade, and human rights groups have accused Russian forces of widespread abuse of civilians, including torture.
Russian forces withdrew from the southern Russian republic after a brutal 1994-1996 war that left separatists in charge. They returned in 1999 after Chechnya-based militants invaded a neighboring region and the Kremlin blamed the rebels for apartment-building bombings that killed 300 people.