Andrew Osborn








Poland police arrest top Chechen separatist, 17th September 2010 10:44

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Matthew Day in Warsaw

Police in Poland on Friday arrested a top Chechen separatist that Moscow has been attempting to try on terrorism charges for years, but the detention threatens further to cloud diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK.

Akhmed Zakayev, who was given political asylum by Britain in 2003, was arrested as he attended a congress of Chechen exiles in Warsaw. The 51-year-old former Chechen rebel fighter was detained on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by Russia where he faces 11 separate charges including kidnapping, terrorism and the killing of civilians.

Mr Zakayev was released on Friday evening after a Polish court ordered that he be freed.

Russian prosecutors said they had began to draw up extradition papers for Mr Zakayev, who was a close friend of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent whose 2006 murder in London plunged UK-Russia relations into crisis.

Top Kremlin officials said Poland should hand him over without delay. "Akhmed Zakayev is an international terrorist," said Alexander Khloponin, the Kremlin's point man for the troubled North Caucasus region which includes Chechnya.

"Zakayev is guilty of many acts of terrorism and did not hide that he coordinated or pretended to coordinate underground fighters in the North Caucasus. He must be tried in Russia."

But in a written ruling, Piotr Schab, a Polish judge, on Friday said he had taken into consideration the fact that in 2003, Mr Zakayev had been granted political asylum in Britain, where he is now based.

"It is clear that a decision by any member state has the same effect across across the entire European Union," Judge Schab said, quoted by the Polish news agency PAP.

Prosecutors have seven days to lodge an appeal against the ruling. But with Mr Zakayev free to travel as he pleases, the issue of his possible extradition became purely theoretical.

Mr Zakayev, who lives in London and fought in two wars against Russia during the 1990s, said he had fallen into a trap. "All this looks like a conspiracy to me," he told the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita after he was arrested. "I got my visa from the Polish embassy with no problems but when I came here I walked into a trap."

His arrest put Britain and Poland, both of whom are trying to repair badly damaged relations with Russia, in a difficult position. The UK has repeatedly argued that Russia has failed to provide sufficient evidence to extradite Mr Zakayev, casting doubt over the credibility of Moscow's accusations. Its refusal to hand him over has been one of the main irritants in UK-Russia relations and any move to lobby Poland for his return to Britain would raise hackles in Moscow.

Poland, meanwhile, risked being accused of collaborating with its old enemy if it agrees to extradite Mr Zakayev, while Moscow was likely to punish it diplomatically if it refused. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, played down the prospect of extradition. "According to international law, Poland must undertake some actions in this regard but that does not mean we will be fulfilling Russia's wishes," he told Polish radio.

Polish finance minister Jan Rostowski went further saying he could not imagine Mr Zakayev would be handed over "because there are such things as overriding values". Analysts said it was hard to assess Mr Zakayev's real influence over events in Chechnya today. He was a staunch proponent of independence in the past but has since moderated his position and suggested that what was a secular struggle has been hijacked by murderous Islamist extremists.