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Qatar convicts 2 Russian agents
Updated: 2004-07-01 01:44

A Qatari court convicted two Russian intelligence officers Wednesday in the assassination of a Chechen rebel leader and sentenced them to life in prison — which in the Gulf state is 25 years.

Muhsin Suwaidi, left, and Dimitry Afanasiev, Lawyers of the two Russians accused for the assassination of Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, speak to the press after hearing the verdict, at Justice Court, Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday, June 30, 2004. [Reuters]

The judge in the case said the plot to assassinate Zelimkhan 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.

Yandarbiyev, who had been linked to terrorism by Russia, the United States and the United Nations, was killed in a February car bombing that also injured his teenage son. The Russian officers were arrested soon after.

Russia has denied involvement in Yandarbiyev's killing and has said the defendants, who have not been officially identified, were agents gathering intelligence about terrorism.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, reiterated Moscow's stance the defendants had nothing to do with the Yandarbiyev's killing, the Interfax news agency reported.

"Respecting the judicial procedures of the government of Qatar, our lawyers will appeal with the aim of reconsidering the ruling," he said.

Lawyer Mohsen al-Suweidy, head of the defense team that also included Russian lawyers, said he had expected his clients eventually to be acquitted.

The trial began in April in Qatar's Supreme Criminal Court.

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

Wednesday's hearing, held under tight security, was attended by Yandarbiyev's wife, Malika, representatives of the Russian Embassy and the Chechen separatist government.

Malika Yandarbiyev told reporters she was "satisfied" with the verdict.

Russian legislator Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio that of all the possible outcomes, "this is probably the mildest that could have been expected."

The defense team will seek to have the two returned to Russia to serve their sentences, the law firm Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasyev & Partners said in a statement quoted by Interfax.

Before giving his verdict, judge Ibrahim al-Nasr asked the Russian men if they wanted to say anything. They reiterated their not guilty pleas.

They showed little emotion when al-Nasr read the verdict, and were immediately taken away by through a back door. Unlike previous hearings, the men were not handcuffed in the courtroom.

Defense lawyers have said their clients were detained and searched unlawfully at their diplomatic residence and were coerced into confessing through torture.

In a statement before the sentencing, Akhmed Zakayev, an aide to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, said the intelligence officers "fulfilled the order of their government."

"Today's decision by the Qatari court will show whether the Russian government itself can justifiably be called a terrorist organization," he said.

Yandarbiyev, Chechnya's acting president in 1996-97, had lived in Qatar since 2000. Moscow had sought his extradition on charges of terrorism and links to al-Qaida. The United Nations and Washington had also linked him to terrorism.

Relations between Qatar and Russia were strained after the arrest of the two intelligence agents, but the countries issued a joint statement agreeing to let the Gulf state's courts decide on the case.

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