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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protesters Demand Babitsky's Release

Hundreds of people, including prominent liberal journalists and human rights activists, gathered Friday to demand that Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky be freed.

The rally quickly grew into a sharp-edged protest against acting President Vladimir Putin, with protesters saying the treatment of Babitsky was a sign of shrinking freedoms in Russia and accusing federal agencies of "Gestapo"-like behavior.

Babitsky has not been heard from since Jan. 15, the day before he was detained by federal forces in Chechnya. The Kremlin says he was traded to the Chechen fighters Feb. 3 in exchange for captured Russian soldiers and remains with them, but his supporters suspect he is still being held by federal authorities.

He has angered the Russian military by what they see as pro-Chechen reports for the U.S.-funded radio station.

Posters held by the protesters included one in German: "Mr. Putin, where is Babitsky? Ask your Gestapo about it." Another said, "Babitsky - 1937," in a reference to Stalin's purges.

Savik Shuster, the Moscow bureau chief of Radio Liberty, asked the military to give the station's reporters special accreditation so they could search for Babitsky themselves.

"If he is alive and held by the Chechen field commanders, we will find him," Shuster said at the rally at Pushkin Square.

Sergei Grigoryants, chairman of the Glasnost Defense Fund, which cosponsored the rally with the Union of Journalists, said the treatment of Babitsky was part of a larger trend. "With the abduction of Babitsky we are losing those liberties that have started trickling into our lives over the last 10 years," he said.

To loud applause, Grigoriants said he sent a letter to the Prosecutor General's Office demanding it open a criminal case against Kremlin Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky for "helping stage the abduction of a man, falsification of the videotape [of the exchange of Babitsky] and covering it all up."

He also demanded an investigation into "the acting president's involvement in the crime" and said he asked State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to propose that the lower house of parliament consider suspending Putin's powers until the investigation is completed.

The Duma on Friday turned down a call by Yabloko and other liberals just to discuss Babitsky's case.

Alexander Tkachenko, head of the Russian PEN-Center, said the reporter acted in accordance with the Constitution by using the Chechen rebels, who are Russian citizens, as sources of information.

Valeria Novodvorskaya, a human rights advocate, offered to be exchanged for Babitsky.

"I have a business proposal for our Gestapo, the Federal Security Service: I officially offer myself in exchange for Babitsky," she said. "There are more than enough reasons - just let them read my publications in the media."

Novodvorskaya urged the protesters to work to prevent Putin from being elected president in March. "A butcher, murderer and fascist is leading the country and carrying out a genocide of the Chechen people. Tolerance of Vladimir Putin means a death sentence to Andrei Babitsky and others who dare to get in his way," she said.

Rustam Kaliyev, an ethnic Chechen working for Obshchaya Gazeta, said Babitsky's case was designed to scare other journalists and prevent them from reporting on controversial issues. He said the case reminded him of Nadezhda Chaikina, his colleague who was killed after she sneaked into a filtration camp disguised as a Chechen woman during the 1994-1996 campaign.

"This is not an accident. They have long been trying to decide who will go first," said Andrei Mironov, a human rights activist. "Babitsky was a thorn in their side. His work had a bad effect on [Putin's] rating."

"We want Babitsky back alive and unharmed, otherwise we'll declare war on our power structures," said Dmitry Bykov of the weekly Sobesednik. "When they return him, we should take it as a public apology rather than be grateful for it," Bykov said.