In a case reminiscent of a John le Carré thriller, a prosecutor in Istanbul is accusing Russia of sending hit men to Turkey to kill Chechen activists.
A court in Istanbul this week started proceedings against Temur Makhauri, a Georgian national who allegedly killed a Chechen Islamist rebel in Istanbul in 2009. On the opening day of the trial on March 3, Mr Makhauri, who operated under the codename “Zona” according to the prosecution, plead not guilty to the killing of Ali Osaev, a local leader of the Caucasus Emirate, a group defined as a terrorist organisation by both Russia and the United States.
In the same trial, the court is trying two other suspected agents of the Russian spy agency Federal Security Service (FSB) in absentia. Prosecutor Gokhan Sayin is accusing them of the execution-style killing of three other Chechens in 2011 before slipping out of Turkey with forged passports.
Chechen associations in Turkey say the trial is a landmark case that could help to unveil what they say is a network of Russian agents hunting Chechen activists and other activists abroad.
“It is the first time that the Turkish judiciary has accused Russia’s intelligence service of carrying out those crimes,” Murat Ozer, chairman of Imkander, a group helping Chechen refugees in Turkey, who attended the opening of the trial, told The Daily Beast. He said Turkey was suspecting Russia of “waging war” against Chechens abroad.
Russia has been accused for years of hunting down what it sees as its enemies, but undisputed convictions of killers remain rare. In 2004, a court in Qatar handed down life sentences to two Russian intelligence operatives for assassinating Zelimkan Yandarviyev, a Chechen rebel leader. Russia insisted the two men were innocent. In 2009, Dubai police said a Russian politician ordered the killing of Sulim Yamadayev, another Chechen rebel.
British authorities also blamed Russian agents for the death of the former FSB member Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning with Polonium-210 in London in 2006, but Moscow refused to extradite the suspected killer.Ozer, the head of Imkander, said the Istanbul trial could provide a rare insight into Moscow’s campaign to kill dissidents. He added he felt encouraged by the court’s handling of the case. The presiding judge, Ilhami Yilmaz, rejected a bid by “Zona’s” lawyer to separate the two murder cases of 2009 and 2011, suggesting the court thought there was evidence to show that the crimes had been committed “by the same organization.”