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Vanessa Redgrave and Akhmed Zakayev
Vanessa Redgrave and Akhmed Zakayev

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Now, the dramatic siege at a Moscow theatre last year caused great concern, caused feelings to rise, the hostage situation reminded the world of the continuing bloody conflict between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya. That incident ended with more than a hundred people dead, just before Christmas a suicide bomb attack on a government building in the Chechen capital Grozny killed nearly 50. Russia fought a two year war in Chechnya during the mid-1990s, a very controversial war, and under Vladimir Putin it has renewed its military intervention. Moscow regards this, it says, as its war on terrorism, and has likened the Chechen rebel forces to al-Qaeda. A key figure in the Chechen leadership, Akhmed Zakayev is currently in London. He's on bail waiting for the courts here to decide whether he should be extradited to Russia. In a moment I'll be talking to him and to the actress and human rights campaigner, Vanessa Redgrave, who's here and who's taken up his cause. But first of all, let's set the thing in context with our correspondent Caroline Wyatt in our Moscow studio to talk us through the background of the case.

How does this case look to Moscow, Caroline?

Well it's interesting, Moscow at the moment is still smarting over the appalling events of the hostage taking, the siege here in Moscow in October. The government is determined to find those it deems responsible for it, that is where Mr Zakayev fits in. The rebels themselves who took the theatre are all dead, but now Moscow authorities are looking for the men behind it. They believe Mr Zakayev, as the right hand man to President Maskhadov, must have been somewhere in the planning of it - something that he denies. That, though, is not on the extradition sheet, and it does seem at the moment that Mr Zakayev is simply a man that Moscow knows where he is, they could lay hands on him because he was resident in Denmark, he was an envoy of Mr Maskhadov's government, it was easy for them to get hold of him. But to set the whole thing in context, this is an incredibly bitter conflict, not just on the ground, but also in propaganda terms. Russia, as you rightly said, is very, very keen to portray the conflict in Chechnya as part of the wider war against terror, and it has to be said that a lot of the rebels now, within Chechnya now fighting, they are becoming more Islamist. They were very, very secular, most of them, to begin with, but the longer this conflict goes on, it's really been going on effectively for the last decade, the more intensely they're looking for funding, for example, from Saudi Arabia, and making this a religious war, which is not what most of the civilian population of Chechnya actually want.

Thank you very much indeed, Caroline. Thank you. And now we turn, first of all to Vanessa, Vanessa Redgrave, and Akhmed Zakayev. They're with me in the studio and we're also joined by Natasha Ward who is our interpreter for the morning. Right now, Vanessa, what, what got Mr Zakayev's case, what brought it to your attention, why did you choose this case as a vital case?

It's not just Akhmed's case, it's the Chechen people's case. As he so rightly said, to put the whole thing into context, after being in Kosovo and in Bosnia, I had a telephone call from a Russian friend of Mr Zakayev and his president, who is in Paris, and he rang and said that the Chechen parliamentary leader wanted to come over. It was just at the beginning of the war that President Yeltsin had renewed, declaring Mr Putin as his new prime minister. And it's from that time, at the beginning of the second war in October '99, that I founded, together with a number of wonderful people, internationally, here in Britain, Eleanor Bonner, ..., the widow of Andre Zakarov, Gunter Gras, and others, we founded a campaign for peace and human rights in Chechnya because we knew that the president and his special representative and deputy prime minister wanted peace and wanted to continue the peace talks that Akhmed has been leading right the way through the first war. He's been on the negotiating team and accepted by the Russian side as a political -

Let me just - we'll come back of course Vanessa in a moment - Mr Zakayev, if you were, one, the killing that you have been accused of you deny, secondly, what would happen if you were extradited to Moscow, what do you think would happen to you?

INTERPRETER'S TRANSLATION: I think everyone who knows the way things are in Chechnya, it's a very easy question to understand. There are several representatives of Chechnya who found themselves in the hands of the Russian authorities, some of them simply disappeared without trace before any trial. Those who did get as far as being tried, and found guilty, they would then be sent to prison or to a camp, and there they would disappear. And I think that the same fate would await me.

You think, you're saying that there would be no chance of a fair trial, are you?

INTERPRETER'S TRANSLATION: I think you've put it exactly, but more than that, not just I say that but there are human rights organisations which are respected throughout the world which say the same thing.

Presumably the events though, the recent events, the Moscow theatre and the 50 people who were killed when the trucks went into the party building, both of those actions you would condemn?

INTERPRETER'S TRANSLATION: Absolutely. We made a statement immediately in both cases condemning, absolutely condemning, that way of fighting because actions like that don't get us closer to our goals, on the contrary, they are putting off the day when we see the rule of law in Chechnya and democracy in Chechnya. If we're talking about terrorism in Chechnya, then there's one thing I think that has to be said, the Russian forces have been given a very specific task, right from the start of the second war, which is to destroy the Chechen nation. And what they're doing is terrorising the civilian population. And those Chechens who have taken arms are, in their turn, terrorising the Russian troops. So we're in a vicious circle and there seems to be no way out of it unless someone intervenes from outside, and by someone I mean the international community.

Vanessa, are you confident in the British legal system that Mr Zakayev will get justice and if he should not be sent back he will not be sent back, and if he should be sent back he will be sent back, but are you confident in the British legal system - you've had your doubts about it in the past - are you confident of it in this case?

Yes, I'm completely confident for two reasons. First of all, because the Danish government - Mr Zakayev, by the way, has been my guest here in England for exactly a year now, very publicly and the Russians were very unhappy about that. Doing his diplomatic work and political work in Europe as well as in the UK. When the Danish government received an extradition warrant for his arrest they were bound by terms of the treaty to arrest Mr Zakayev. They asked the Russian government to provide evidence and they took all that evidence, and the Danish government read it, studied it, asked for more - and by the way even the Russian government agreed they'd got no evidence of Mr Zakayev's involvement in the terrorist act in the Moscow theatre - the Danish government refused his extradition. He's come back to England, the extradition arrest is still active on Interpol, which the legal minds would say is an abuse of process. However Mr Zakayev is, how can one say it, he's not afraid to come to the courts, to answer all questions, to bring his witnesses and his case and for it to be heard.

Well we've heard a lot of it this morning and we thank you all for being here this morning, very much indeed, and we will follow the case with great interest. Thank you.


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