Chechen activist, 1 of Russia's most wanted, arrested in Poland, then set free

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — One of Russia's most wanted men — a charismatic Chechen activist who counts Vanessa Redgrave among his supporters — was arrested in Poland Friday on Russian charges related to Chechnya's separatist war of the 1990s, but later set free.

Akhmed Zakayev faces charges of murder, kidnapping and terrorism.

Zakayev, who was granted asylum in Britain years ago, maintains the accusations are trumped up and defiantly told Radio Free Europe the day before his arrest that he was in Poland "absolutely legally" and would not hide from authorities. The Kremlin casts the dapper activist as a dangerous guerrilla mastermind.

The 51-year-old was apprehended "without any trouble" as he left a home in Warsaw early in the day and turned over to prosecutors, national police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said.

On Friday evening a Warsaw regional court released Zakayev, who was in Warsaw to attend an international conference on Chechnya. Prosecutors had sought to extend his detention.

Conference organizer Adam Borowski said the court decision meant Zakayev would stay in Poland pending a court decision on whether he can be extradited.

However, court spokesman Wojciech Malek said the ruling means Zakayev is free to leave Poland if he wants. Prosecutors can appeal the decision within seven days.

It was unclear when any decision on a possible extradition might be made. Prosecutors' spokeswoman Monika Lewandowska said prosecutors have not yet received a formal extradition request from Russia.

Zakayev walked out of the court and told reporters he would attend the conference's final day Saturday, but didn't talk about his plans beyond that. He said he had been confident that "Poland would not abandon the principle of democracy and of the rule of law."

Russia's Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment after the ruling.

Supporters said Zakayev had been on his way to turn himself in for questioning when he was picked up by the police.

Zakayev — who with his silver beard and impeccable tailoring looks more the diplomat or professor than guerrilla fighter — appeared relaxed in a crisp white shirt and suit as he arrived in a police car at the prosecutor's office.

"I am not expecting anything that would violate the rules of the law," he told television cameras upon his arrival. "Poland is a democratic, law abiding nation. When I learned that there will be no problems I decided to come."

The arrest came as a surprise to many in Poland — which has prided itself on supporting the spread of independence and democracy by offering support to activists abroad, including from Chechnya, ever since it broke free of Moscow's influence in 1989 and triggered similar upheavals across Eastern Europe.

The detention came at a time when relations between Moscow and Warsaw are beginning to thaw. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to visit Poland later this year as a sign of a "new start" in bilateral relations that offer a huge potential in all fields, the Russian ambassador has said.

If Zakayev is not turned over to Moscow, the diplomatic bridge-building could run into trouble. In 2002, both Denmark and Britain experienced a cooling of ties with Russia after they rejected similar requests to extradite Zakayev.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said before the arrest that police would be legally bound to pick Zakayev up if he showed up for the World Chechen Congress because there was an international warrant for his arrest distributed by Interpol.

Later, however, he indicated that Poland was not prepared to send Zakayev to Russia just to keep Moscow happy. Zakayev will be treated "in accordance with our understanding of Poland's interests and with our sense of decency and justice, and we will not be trying to meet anybody's expectations," Tusk said.

Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov brushed aside Zakayev's comments saying "he is a good actor and behaving like one," and called for his prompt return to Russia.

"By law, he needs to be given a life sentence," Kadyrov said according to Russian news agencies. "This is what I think. Killing him or something else would be a pleasure to him. He needs to be jailed for life, so that he sees what he did."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said only that officials are closely following the situation and are in contact with the Polish authorities.

Russian Ambassador to Poland Alexander Alekseev said earlier this week that Russia "has proof" Zakayev had been involved in terrorism. But it appeared from Russian officials' statements Friday that the charges sent to Poland were similar to those used in previous — unsuccessful — extradition requests.

Zakayev was arrested in 2002 in Denmark, then released after officials ruled Russia failed to provide sufficient evidence to merit his extradition.

He then flew to London, where he was picked up on the warrant distributed by Interpol. But British authorities decided not to extradite him, instead granting him asylum saying that he risked being tortured if he was sent back.

Scores of Polish lawmakers from both the left and right appealed to the authorities not to extradite Zakayev — part of a groundswell of support after word of his arrest spread.

"I'm optimistic because I know the feelings of the Polish nation," said Chechen activist Osman Ferzaouli, who is based in Denmark but was in Warsaw to attend the conference on trying to develop a concept to stop the Russian-Chechen conflict.

"We have tens of thousands of supporters among the Poles."

Amnesty International weighed in as well, saying that Zakayev should not be extradited to Russia because he "could not count on an honest trial" there.

Police spokesman Sokolowski said that detailed information from Russia with dates and places where Zakayev would be in Poland triggered the arrest. On previous visits to Poland, Zakayev moved freely.

Zakayev entered politics in 1994, when as an actor he was named culture minister by Chechnya's first separatist president just months before the Russian army rolled in to crush the tiny mountainous region's independence bid. The war ended in a cease-fire and a humiliating Russian withdrawal that left Chechnya de facto independent and largely lawless.

When the Russian army marched back into Chechnya in 1999, Zakayev was a top assistant to separatist President Aslan Maskhadov. Zakayev was wounded and left Chechnya, becoming Maskhadov's top envoy abroad.

At Russia's request, international police agency Interpol had put out a "red notice" on Zakayev in 2001 — the equivalent of putting him on its most-wanted list. An Interpol red notice is not a warrant, but shares one country's warrant with other member countries.

Zakayev's charisma has won him many supporters, including actress Vanessa Redgrave, who has campaigned in his favor and paid his $98,000 bail after he was detained at London's Heathrow Airport in December 2002.

He has said he represents the Chechen separatist political faction, and distanced himself from radical Islamic rebels. This year he denounced the militant leader who claimed responsibility for the Moscow subway bombings in March, which he described as a "monstrous crime."


Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Angela Charlton in Paris, Karel Janicek in Prague and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report. Rising reported from Berlin.