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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Agents Get Life in Qatar Bombing

ReutersOne of the two agents being escorted from the Qatari courtroom in Doha on Wednesday after being convicted for participating in Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev's assassination.
DOHA, Qatar -- A Qatari court on Wednesday found two Russian intelligence officers guilty of assassinating Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and sentenced both to life in prison for a February car bombing that the judge said was approved by the "Russian leadership."

The convictions and sentences, which in Qatar equate to 25 years behind bars, were regarded by at least one State Duma deputy as a major embarrassment to President Vladimir Putin, whose government has waged a fierce crackdown on rebels in Chechnya.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the two men's involvement in the killing. Russia has said the defendants were in Qatar to gather intelligence about terrorism.

"Moscow's position is still that the two Russian citizens detained in Qatar had nothing to do with the attack on Yandarbiyev," Lavrov said in Jakarta, Indonesia. "We will continue to work for the early return of the Russian nationals to their country."

He said they would appeal.

Judge Ibrahim al-Nasr said the plot to assassinate Yandarbiyev, a former Chechen president and rebel leader, was carried out with the approval of the "Russian leadership" and coordinated between Moscow and the Russian Embassy in Qatar.

"It is a pretty serious slap in the face for Russia and first of all for its president," said Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy head of the Duma's Security Committee. "We need to put it bluntly -- we've screwed up."

Yandarbiyev, who had been linked to terrorism by Moscow, Washington and the United Nations, was killed when his car was destroyed by a bomb as he drove from a Doha mosque on Feb. 13. His teenage son was injured. The agents, Anatoly Belashkov and Vassily Bogachev, were arrested soon after.

Russian law firm Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasiyev issued a statement saying the appeal would argue that the agents' arrest violated diplomatic immunity; that their confessions were obtained through torture; and that Qatar's Supreme Criminal Court had not investigated the torture reports and failed to address the lack of credible evidence.

Lawyer Mohsen al-Suweidy, head of the Qatari-based defense team, said he had expected the defendants to be acquitted in the trial, which began in April.

In Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, accused Qatari investigators of torturing the detainees.

"[Because of] the illegal seizure of the Russians with the use of violence, the numerous violations in the course of the investigation, the steps of physical influence and psychological pressure on the detainees, [this verdict] can't be considered just," Kosachyov said.


AP

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev's widow, Malika, center, talking with a reporter after hearing the Qatari court's verdict on Wednesday.

Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty in a case that threatened to strain relations between Russia and Qatar, a tiny oil-rich Gulf state closely allied to the United States.

Nasr said Qatari law allowed judges to reduce sentences under certain circumstances. The Russians planned to kill Yandarbiyev outside the mosque but moved the site to reduce casualties, he said.

Sergei Markov, from the Institute for Political Studies, said the verdict "indicated that the Qatari authorities do not consider Yandarbiyev as a criminal who had been financing terrorist groups. Instead, they considered him a friend of Qatar and a true-believing Muslim."

Washington should join Moscow in pressing for a pardon or amnesty for the agents, he said, because "Russia and the United States are in the same anti-terrorism coalition."

Wednesday's open hearing, held under tight security, was attended by Yandarbiyev's wife, Malika, representatives of the Russian Embassy and Chechen separatist government, and a heavy Russian media contingent. About 20 camouflaged Qatari police crammed the courtroom.

Before issuing his verdict, the judge asked the detainees, who appeared in court in track suits and were not handcuffed as in previous hearings, if they wanted to say anything. Replying through a translator, they repeated their not guilty pleas.

The men appeared composed when the verdict was read, after which they were immediately taken away by special security forces. Reporters did not get a chance to talk to them.

"I'm happy with the verdict. It's what they deserve," Yandarbiyev's widow, Malika, veiled and dressed in black, told reporters after the ruling.

Yandarbiyev, who was briefly president of Chechnya after rebels defeated federal forces in 1996, was added at Russia's request last year to a UN list of people suspected of links to the al-Qaida militant network.

But Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakayev said the court had shown "who is the terrorist and who is the victim of terror."

"In the last 10 years the Russians have tried to make Chechen nationalists look like the terrorists. [President Vladimir] Putin should be considered a war criminal," he said in the courtroom after the verdict.

A third Russian, who had diplomatic status, was freed and expelled from Qatar before the trial. The diplomat, named in court as Alexander Fetisov, helped plot the attack, Nasr said.

Moscow had said it wanted a "friendly" verdict for the two defendants, who pleaded not guilty to Yandarbiyev's murder. One pleaded guilty to "deception and forgery."

Observers said before the verdict they expected the men to be found guilty but eventually freed under a deal between the two governments, pointing to a pardon granted last year to a Jordanian journalist after Jordan's King Abdullah intervened.

(AP, Reuters)