Rough Day for Russian Attempts to Silence Dissidents
A busy 48 hours in the international intrigue business, as two big name Vladimir Putin critics turned up in the news, with some very surprising results.
First on Tuesday came news out of the Ukraine of what appeared to be another dissident journalist assassinated:
MOSCOW — A Russian journalist who fled his homeland last year to escape a campaign of intimidation that he said “was so personal, so scary that I was forced to flee” was shot and killed on Tuesday in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The killing of the journalist, Arkady Babchenko, a former war correspondent who stirred fury among Russian nationalists with his sharply critical coverage, is the latest in a series of attacks, many of them fatal, on outspoken foes of President Vladimir V. Putin, both inside Russia and beyond.
The Ukrainian police said the journalist was found, bleeding, by his wife in their Kiev apartment building and then rushed by ambulance to a hospital. He died en route from what the police said were multiple gunshot wounds to his back.
Kiev’s police chief, Andriy Krishchenko, said on Ukrainian television that “the first and most obvious” reason for the attack was Mr. Babchenko’s “professional activities,” which included articles and social media posts questioning Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and Russia’s military role in Syria.
Then came news this morning that Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder, who among other criticisms of the Putin regime was one of the drivers behind the Magnitsky Act, had been arrested in Spain. Browder even live-tweeted his experience.
Bill Browder, a London-based investor who has styled himself as a nemesis of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, documented the latest episode in his 13-year game of cat and mouse with the Russian government, live-tweeting his brief arrest by the Spanish police on Wednesday.
Russia has repeatedly requested Mr. Browder’s arrest through Interpol — this was the sixth such attempt, he said — but its requests have been refused repeatedly. In 2013, in a rare and sharp rebuke, Interpol said Russia’s request to arrest Mr. Browder “was of a predominately political nature.”
A spokesman for the Spanish national police said that Mr. Browder had been detained in error, and that police in Madrid realized the international warrant was no longer valid only after he had been taken into custody.
“There is not, and never has been, a Red Notice for Mr. Bill Browder,” the Interpol media office said in an emailed statement. “Mr. Browder is not wanted via Interpol channels.”
Mr. Browder said he had been arrested while en route to testify to Spanish prosecutors about a corruption case involving Russian officials, and that he was released after the Interpol general secretary in Lyon, France, intervened on his behalf.
Interpol, an organization of 190 countries is forbidden by its constitution from any action of a “political character.” This can make it difficult to obtain red notices, which amount to international arrest warrants.
As Browder was once again free to roam, the Ukrainian police press conference to discuss the Arkady Babchenko murder instantly took a dramatic turn:
Mr. Babchenko created a sensation in Kiev on Wednesday by appearing at a news conference, billed as a police briefing about his assassination, at which he was greeted by whoops of surprise and scattered applause. It came less than 24 hours after his wife said she had found him bleeding to death on the floor of their apartment, shot in the back.
“First of all, I would like to apologize that all of you had to live through this, because I know the horrible feeling when you have to bury your colleagues,” Mr. Babchenko, 41, told the stunned room. “Separately, I want to apologize to my wife for all the hell she had to go through.”
Mr. Babchenko and the senior officials from the Ukrainian security services who appeared with him said that a contract for $40,000 had been put on his life, and that the only way to track down those responsible was to make it seem as if it had happened.
The operation took two months to plan, they said. Vasily S. Gritsak, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, said there were two suspects in custody, both of them Ukrainian citizens.
The Ukrainian authorites accused the Russian security services of ordering the assassination of Mr. Babchenko, who fled Russia last year after he faced a harsh campaign of intimidation over his criticism of the Kremlin.
As part of the ruse, the police had said that Mr. Babchenko died while being taken to the hospital and staged pictures of his corpse.
The faked killing had immediately soured the already grim relations between Kiev and Moscow, with both sides accusing the other of carrying it out.
Moscow immediately cranked up its propoganda machine on Wednesday, with talk show guests on state-run television accusing Ukraine of carrying out the killing to make Russia look bad and spoil the World Cup soccer tournament, scheduled to start in Russia on June 14.
With the eyes of the world getting ready to be on Russia for the imminent start of the 2018 World Cup, events in and attached to Russia bear watching.
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