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Moscow's Shadow War - Playing Now in Poland

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By Thor Halvorssen

WARSAW, Poland -- Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB/FSB operative, was murdered in one of the most sensational assassination plots in history. In November of 2006 he was poisoned in a London hotel by two KGB agents. The killers inserted a highly toxic radioactive compound, polonium-210, into his tea. The world was captivated as he lay dying in a hospital, completely bald from radiation, mumbling conspiracy theories about how Putin had ordered the hit.

Anna Politkovskya, a Russian-American journalist published in Novaya Gazeta and outside of Russia exclusively in Norway's Ny Tid (full disclosure, I have an ownership stake in this news magazine), was shot four times in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building--one bullet into her head at point blank range and three into her upper body. The date was October 7, 2006.

Natalya Estemirova, a Russian human rights activist known in the field as a legend for her fearlessness and good humor, was kidnapped on the morning of July 15, 2009. She was found later that day near the Caucasian village of Gazi-Yurt in Ingushetia with bullet wounds in her chest and head. She had been executed.

What did these three Russians have in common? The first two were murdered on the orders of Vladimir Putin and the third was killed on the orders of Russia's puppet government in Chechnya. A spy, a journalist, and a human rights activist. Why were they killed? Because they were disgusted with the Russian government's slow-motion genocide in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and were actively exposing it. The sheer number of killings in Chechnya is unfathomable and sometimes includes entire villages. The actual details (mutilation of ears and genitals, torture, electric shocks, eye-gouging) and the photographic evidence available are impossible to ignore.

Chechnya has been suffering from Russian aggression for centuries. Most notoriously, Stalin deported the entire population of Chechnya to Kazakhstan in 1944. One fifth of them died in the forced relocation and were only allowed to return after Stalin's death. In 1990, when Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan proclaimed their independence, so did Chechnya. Two wars with Russia have been fought since, the first between 1994 and 1996 and the second since 1999. Several Chechen presidents have been murdered by the Russian government, and in 2007 the legitimate government of Chechnya was forced into exile. Moscow installed a puppet government in its place. At the same time, a rebel Islamist terrorist network proclaimed a "Caucasus Emirate" in Chechnya.

Three factions exist in Chechnya: one is the puppet government, another is the Islamist rebellion led by Dokka Umarov, and the third is the legitimate government of Chechnya, headed by Akhmed Zakayev (who is relentlessly pursued by the puppet government and by Umarov who even issued a Fatwa against Zakayev). The most famous of the three--Umarov's rebel network--claims responsibility for the numerous bloody attacks in Moscow and elsewhere. Ironically, they are reportedly supplied and financed by the Russian state security apparatus. Umarov provides Putin, Medvedev, and the criminal gang that controls Russia's vast energy resources with a scapegoat villain. Fear works, and in Russia the Chechens are cast as the perfect enemy: Islamist radicals who celebrate the 9/11 attacks and pay homage to Osama bin Laden. Even President Bush ceremoniously praised Putin's strong hand against terrorists in Chechnya. The result is that the world perceives the Chechens as troublesome Islamist terrorists with no peaceful or moderate alternatives.

This past week, in the small village of Pultusk in the outskirts of Warsaw, a group of 200 Chechens gathered at the World Chechen Congress to discuss prospects for peace and human rights in the region. I flew to Warsaw from New York to meet Zakayev and to encourage the gathered Chechens to see beyond their struggle and become involved in other human rights causes--to embrace the universality of human rights and to build bridges with other activists.

The mood was somber as Zakayev was detained after Polish authorities, acquiescing to Russian pressure, issued an arrest warrant for the Chechen leader on accusations of terrorism. Rather than fleeing Poland, Zakayev agreed to visit the Polish prosecutor's office.

Similar accusations were made against Zakayev in Britain in 2003. A British court investigated the accusations in great detail and found them to be baseless. While visiting Norway, the Russian government has also tried to have Zakayev arrested and deported: the Norwegian foreign ministry has dismissed the accusations and referred the Russian government to the findings of the British court. In Denmark, the Russians failed after the Danes carried out their own investigation and found that the accusations were false.

Remarkably, the Polish government's first determination--without providing any information--was that there was sufficient evidence to warrant Zakayev's arrest and possible extradition to Russia. Given their knowledge of the mendacious nature of Russia's authoritarian government, the Poles should know better. It took a court order for the public prosecutor, embarrassed and apologetic, to release Zakayev.

The Chechen Congress was the subject of a media frenzy in Poland--not because of the overwhelming (and ghastly) evidence presented of Russian terror in Chechnya, but instead because of the melodrama involving Zakayev. His deportation would be a tremendous blow to the peaceful faction of Chechens both in the Caucasus as well as in exile, allowing the Russians to polarize their war effort between Wahhabi extremists and their puppet government.

The list of countries officially recognizing that the Russian government is engaged in a concerted effort to harass, silence, or eliminate those who speak of Russian war crimes in Chechnya is growing--Poland is the newest on the list. But the West has ignored Russia's crimes for too long. Litvinenko was murdered in London with only a murmur from Her Majesty's Government. Politkovskya was American and it has been business as usual with the Russians since her murder.

To its shame, the West remains silent and indifferent. More than 200,000 Chechens--40,000 of them children--have died on Moscow's orders. Andrei Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, puts it plainly: "Chechnya is one great concentration camp." Russian activists, ultimately, could be the most important actors in this struggle to get their government to cease terror in the Northern Caucasus.

Chechnya's peaceful Sufi Muslims might take solace in the unsurrendering spirit of Russia's anti-totalitarian poet, Anna Akhmatova:

And you, my friends who have been called away,
I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.