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Russia1 August 2005

Moscows turns its guns on Andrei Babitski and ABC News after interview with Chechen

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Reporters Without Borders today condemned the reaction of the Russian authorities to an exclusive interview which journalist Andrei Babitski conducted with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev on 23 June and which was broadcast by the US television network ABC News five on 28 July.

Babitski faces possible prosecution. The government has condemned the interview as "offering a platform to a bloodthirsty terrorist." And defence minister Serguei Ivanov yesterday declared ABC News "persona non grata" in Russia and said no member of the ministry would henceforth grant it an interview.

"We are stunned to see the Russian authorities severely reprimanding the US government for not banning the broadcast of this interview in the United States although the decision as to whether or not to broadcast is the network’s sole responsibility, and the network simply complied with its duty to inform," Reporters Without Borders said.

"It would furthermore be extremely serious if Babitski is prosecuted by the Russian authorities as he conducted the interview with the sole aim of informing international public opinion," the organisation added.

No Russian news media is allowed to carry any interview with Basayev, who claimed responsibility for last September’s hostage-taking at a school in Beslan which resulted in the death of 330 people including 186 children.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US government had "no authority to prevent ABC News from exercising its constitutional right to broadcast the interview." Although he recognised that the US government had encouraged US networks to limit the broadcasting of pictures of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, he said it had made it very clear that it was up to them and them alone to decide.

An ABC representative commented to Reporters Without Borders: "ABC News will continue to fully report on news from Russia and that very important region".

Held in a forest in the mountains of Chechnya, the interview contained no revelations but it was the first to be broadcast in several years with the man who has a 10 million dollar reward on his head.

Dressed in black and holding prayer beads, Basayev said he was not responsible for the death of the Beslan school hostages because it was the assault by Russian troops that caused the "terrible tragedy." Accusing the Russians of waging a "colonial war" in Chechnya under the pretext of combatting terrorism, Basayev said: "I admit I am a bad guy, a bandit, a terrorist. But what would you call them?"

Babitski, who works for the Russian-language service of the Prague-based US station Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said he got the exclusive interview unexpectedly after going to Ingushetia. "A Chechen guerrilla took me to Stanica Nesterovska, where I changed cars," Babitski said. "I was a completely shocked when I saw Shamil Basayev inside the car. I realised at once that the Russian authorities could prosecute me for ’collaborating with a journalist’."

Reached by phone today, Babitski told Reporters Without Borders that as far as he knew, the Russian authorities have not yet initiated any criminal prosecution against him.

In his reports in the past, Babitski has criticised the action of the Russian federal forces in Chechnya. In the course of the last five years, he has been detained in a camp in Chernokozovo, in northern Chechnya, arrested by the police, charged with possession of a false passport and prevented from covering the Beslan hostage-taking by a "hooliganism" charge.

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