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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Freedom Broker




Retired army Major Vyacheslav Izmailov, 46, has rescued scores of hostages from Chechnya through his connections in the breakaway republic and the General Prosecutor's Office. At a time when other negotiators have handed over millions of dollars in ransom money, Izmailov says he has never paid a kopek.


Between fervent appeals from the red-eyed mothers of current hostages, Izmailov found a few minutes to talk with Yevgenia Borisova in his office at Novaya Gazeta, where he also works as the newspaper's military observer.


Q:


How many people owe you their lives? A total of 1,094 people were abducted in Chechnya and the neighboring regions from January 1997 to August 1999, according to the Interior Ministry. The ministry says half of them are still there and are kept in very bad conditions.


A:


About 100 people have been freed with my assistance. But I am sure many more people have been kidnapped than official sources say.


Q:


How did you get involved with this kind of work?


A:


I spent more than a year in Chechnya as an officer in the No. 205 motorized infantry brigade. During the [1994-1996] war I rescued many Chechen civilians from idiots in our military who were ready to shoot anyone who was Chechen. I was prepared to use any means possible to help ordinary people. I gained Chechens' trust.


After the peace settlement in August 1996, I was left in Grozny to find Russian soldiers buried in mass graves and exchange prisoners of war. I was appointed to those tasks because I was known for having a good relationship with the Chechens.


Some hostages we managed to be free without exchange and we never paid any ransoms.


At the end of 1997 I thought I was done with my job because there were no Russian prisoners of war left - only hostages captured for ransom. Such cases were not my duty, but I could not stop because people had gotten to know what I was doing and appealed to me for help.


Q:


You were no longer in the army then?


A:


I had retired. But soldiers' mothers were calling me and begging for help. Novaya Gazeta made me their military observer and people started flocking here to me. One mother - a teacher from Nizhny [Novgorod] named Tagil Nadezhda Shchanova - virtually lived here for the four months before I freed her son.


Q:


How did you negotiate without the backing of the army behind you?


A:


Yury Shchekochikhin [a State Duma deputy and the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta] invited [General Prosecutor Yury] Skuratov to the newspaper office, where we discussed the situation and won his support.


We started in 1998 a de facto exchange. Under that scheme, I find a Chechen detained for a minor crime in Russia. Then I locate his relatives in Chechnya and talk to them. They must find and obtain the freedom of three to seven Russian hostages in exchange for their imprisoned relative.


I don't accept just any Chechen prisoner for the program. First of all I want to be sure that he will not go blowing up Moscow apartment blocks the day after his release or start killing people. I have confidential talks with his lawyer to find out if the detainee might commit a crime after his release. And he must also come from a respected Chechen clan - one with whom the kidnappers would agree to talk.


I tell the relatives that how they go about freeing the Russian hostages is completely their own business. For example, kidnappers asking for $1 million in ransom may drop the price to $8,000 or even $5,000 after speaking with the relatives.


Q:


What are the legal grounds for your scheme?


A:


The biggest problem is that there are no legal grounds for such an exchange. There is no law - and cannot be such a law - that permits suspects to be released for the purposes we have in mind.


We have a law that states suspects must not leave the country after being released. I tell the Chechen side that if they help me free the Russians, I will press for the release of their imprisoned relative but he will not be permitted to leave the country. I don't pay any bailout money.


Q:


But how did you manage to bend the law for your program?


A:


Only a prosecutor could authorize such a change. I had a direct link to [Skuratov's deputy Mikhail] Katyshev. I called him and said, "Mikhail Borisovich, I could free several hostages. Please help."


I gave the prosecutor's office papers outlining each swap plan. Sometimes they refused. But if they had not helped, those 100 people whom we released would be dead.


There are no other options to free hostages apart from paying ransom or setting up a swap. But if we start paying ransoms, kidnappers will tomorrow demand money for another person and kill if the ransom is not paid. I will not bear moral responsibility for that.


Q:


How is the exchange program going now?


A:


It is difficult. Since May, when the General Prosecutor's Office leadership changed, the scheme has almost stopped working. Chechens still trust me - they know that I haven't deceived anyone - but since May they have freed 11 Russians in exchange for nothing. No Chechens in Russia have been freed because the General Prosecutor's Office is not cooperating. It is a shame because it looks like I deceived them.


Q:


Are you afraid the Chechens might kill you? I heard that you had to evacuate your family outside of Russia?


A:


Yes. They have threatened me, as well as my editor-in-chief and Shchekochikhin. They have called me at home, come here to the newspaper office, and complained to my bosses. I told them, "Here I am, take me and do what you want." But they did not take me.


Q:


Have you handled any unusual cases?


A:


You know Said Isayev, the Chechen journalist of Itar-Tass who was kidnapped twice? [A $500,000 ransom was demanded for Isayev after he was kidnapped in March. He spent 80 days in captivity]. I obtained his release by swapping a mine-detector for him.


I held negotiations with the kidnappers. Seeing that their region was heavily mined, we offered them a mine-detector instead of money. They agreed.


Q:


How do you feel about your work?


A:


In the beginning, my soul felt deep pain when mothers came to me crying in desperation. A part of my soul died every time a mother lost a son in captivity and I failed to help in time.


But what I feel now is that I have to do everything possible to release hostages. I will fight with the Russian law enforcement bodies to do this. If someone dies in Chechnya because Russian officials were inefficient and slow, I will publish their names and say they could have helped but did not. I don't want those officials to live well while those who had depended on them are dead.