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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zakayev Released for Lack of Proof

APAkhmed Zakayev in Copenhagen on Oct. 24
In a slap in the face to Russia's justice system, Denmark refused Tuesday to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, saying the evidence provided against him was insufficient, vague and gathered mostly after his arrest.

Although the Russian foreign minister and justice minister accused the Danish Justice Ministry of basing its decision on political considerations, many politicians in Moscow focused their criticism on the Prosecutor General's Office for its handling of the Zakayev case. The official reaction was much milder than could have been expected, especially in light of the uproar over Denmark's refusal to ban a Chechen conference in Copenhagen in October.

Zakayev, a top representative of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, was released Tuesday afternoon, four days after Russian prosecutors submitted what they said was their last piece of evidence against him ahead of Saturday's deadline. The actor turned military leader, who only last year was accepted by the Kremlin as a suitable negotiating partner, was arrested in Copenhagen on Oct. 30 following the Chechen conference, attended by separatists and their supporters.

"After having been through the Russian extradition request, the Justice Ministry has taken its decision today," said Jakob Scharf, the head of the Danish Justice Ministry's international department, The Associated Press reported.

"An extradition cannot be made on the basis of the present material," he said, adding that it "was considered insufficient."

At about 4:30 p.m. Moscow time -- the same time Zakayev was released from prison -- Russia's ambassador in Copenhagen, Nikolai Bordyuzha, was invited to the Danish Foreign Ministry to be informed of the decision.

"I can say clearly that I don't understand this position," Bordyuzha said on Channel One television.

He said he had read most of the documents supplied by the prosecutor's office and found them pointing clearly to crimes committed by Zakayev.

"They explained to me that Denmark continues to remain committed to anti-terrorist principles," Bordyuzha said. "But it seems to me that Denmark will be fighting 'bad' terrorists while fighting 'good' terrorists will be left to someone else."

In Moscow, Danish Ambassador Lars Vissing also visited the Russian Foreign Ministry to explain the decision, Interfax reported.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was in India with President Vladimir Putin, said the Danish government's decision was "not deprived of political connotation," Interfax reported.

"Hysteria was raised in Denmark by the forces that flirt with terrorists," Ivanov was quoted as saying.

Justice Minister Yury Chaika said he had expected Denmark to deny the extradition request because of the political nature of the case.

"It appears that political aspects prevailed over legal ones in that case," Interfax quoted Chaika as saying. "Judging by Danish officials' moves to drag out the process, it was clear from the start that the Danish side didn't intend to extradite Zakayev."

In a letter to the Russian Embassy in Copenhagen, posted on the web site of the Danish Embassy in Moscow, Danish justice officials said the decision was made solely on legal grounds. They explained that most of the evidence was testimony given outside of court and after Zakayev's Oct. 30 arrest.

"According to the materials received, Zakayev was not represented by an appointed lawyer while witnesses' testimony was taken outside of court," said the letter posted in Russian.

To back up their extradition request, Russian prosecutors questioned Sergei Zhigulin, an Orthodox priest who said Zakayev could have taken part in his kidnapping, and jailed Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev, whose testimony has not been made public. Zakayev was charged with armed rebellion, organization of an illegal armed formation and attempts on the life of a law enforcement official.

In the letter, Danish justice officials pointed to a special clause in a 1957 convention on extradition, which says that "in special circumstances" Danish authorities should request the state asking for extradition "to provide evidence sufficient to establish the probability of the person's guilt" and would have the right to decline the extradition request if evidence "is considered insufficient."

The Prosecutor General's Office said that since Zakayev remains on the international wanted list, Russia will continue to pursue his extradition from other countries. "A request for his extradition will be sent to whichever country he is in," said Robert Adelkhanyan, head of the foreign relations department of the prosecutor's office. He also said that Russia plans to appeal Denmark's decision to the European Court of Human Rights.

With several noted exceptions, Russian politicians were more likely to criticize their own law enforcement bodies for what appears to be a blow to Russia's efforts to win international support for its portrayal of the Chechnya war as part of the fight against international terrorism.

In a sign that the Russian government was likely to downplay Denmark's decision, it was the eighth news item on state-owned Rossia television's main evening news program Tuesday.

Apart from pro-Moscow Chechen officials, who were the most furious, only Federation Council member Valery Fyodorov, who previously has served as a deputy interior minister, called for a boycott of Danish goods.

Others tended to look inward.

Even Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who accused the West of "not even double but triple standards" in relation to Russia, said that Russian prosecutors should have filed their materials more timely and properly.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Union of Right Forces leaders also said Russian prosecutors should do their jobs better, particularly given Europe's stance on the Chechnya war.

"The refusal to extradite him means that similar requests by our authorities in regard to internationally recognized terrorists would be treated likewise, thus humiliating Russia and casting doubt on the fact that it suffers from terrorism no less than the U.S.," Boris Nemtsov said.

Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, who has made a career out of criticizing the West, said his committee would ask prosecutors and officials from the Foreign and Interior Ministries to provide explanations at a hearing Dec. 19.

"We need to get a clear answer, whether the Zakayev case will become a bad precedent in resolving the issue of other Chechen gunmen's extradition," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Zakayev's supporters in Denmark celebrated Tuesday. "We were so happy, we didn't dare believe it," AP quoted Thomas Bindesboell-Larsen of the Danish Chechen Committee as saying. "He is now together with his lawyers and his closest friends to discuss the future."

British actress Vanessa Redgrave, in whose London home Zakayev has lived since January, told Denmark's public radio that "Miracles still happen in this awful world."

Scharf of the Danish Justice Ministry said Zakayev "could freely leave the country." It was not clear where he would go. Zakayev holds a one-year Schengen visa issued in July by the Belgian Embassy in London, AP reported.