A YOUNG Chechen who tried to negotiate the release of hostages during the Moscow theatre siege five years ago, only to be arrested on terrorism charges and imprisoned in the Arctic, has said he was drugged by the Russian security service so that it could claim to have caught one of the perpetrators.
Zaur Talkhigov, 30, is half way through his eight-and-a-half-year sentence. He vehemently rejects claims by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, that he was an accomplice of the Chechen terrorists who took more than 800 theatre-goers hostage.
Independent observers who attended his trial insist that the charges were trumped up and his lawyer is taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Last week he said that FSB agents who had used him to pass messages to the hostage-takers, drugged him before detaining him. Since his arrest he has been moved 15 times between different prisons, he says.
According to Talkhigov, he has been severely beaten by guards. At one point he was held for a year in solitary confinement. He has caught hepatitis C, apparently after doctors used an infected needle on him.
“I still cannot believe I am living this nightmare,” he said. “For four years and eight months I’ve been kept behind bars for absolutely no reason. I’m 100% innocent. I tried to help release some of the hostages. No one knows this better than the FSB officers who were there. They arrested me and put me on trial so that they could claim to have arrested one of the terrorists.”
Talkhigov is now in a cramped cell with 18 inmates sharing one lavatory in Komi, a remote and forbidding region that became infamous under Stalin for its many forced-labour camps. In winter, temperatures drop to -30C. In summer, the cell is a stifling 30C plus.
He is allowed out of his cell for just an hour a day and permitted to wash once a month. The food consists of buckwheat porridge, rancid fishbone soup and the occasional plate of boiled meat.
His mother Tamara can visit him only once a year, for three days. The return train journey to the prison from her home in Chechnya takes 84 hours.
“Conditions in the prison where I am now are relatively good,” said Talkhigov. “In Moscow I was held in a cell so cramped that we took it in turns to sleep. Tuberculosis was rampant. In another prison, where I was held in solitary confinement, two guards came into my cell shortly after I arrived and beat me all over my body with their truncheons as their way of welcoming me. I’ve been under constant psychological pressure.”
Anna Politkovskaya, the fearless investigative reporter who was murdered by a gunman last year, believed in his innocence and wrote about his case. She argued that he was framed by the security service, which after failing to prevent the terrorist attack was anxious to demonstrate some success.
“From day one Talkhigov’s case was about finding him guilty,” she wrote. “His guilt appears to be that he spoke to Chechens inside the building to negotiate the release of some foreign hostages.”
Talkhigov, who worked as a meat wholesaler, went to the scene of the Moscow theatre siege out of curiosity on the second day of the stand-off between the Kremlin and 40 heavily armed Chechens.
There he met Aslambek Aslakhanov, a Chechen member of parliament, who at the time was an adviser to President Vladimir Putin. Aslakhanov allowed Talkhigov to pass through police cordons to an emergency headquarters set up by the FSB’s antiterrorism branch less than 200 yards from the theatre. By his own admission, Aslakhanov gave him a mobile phone and a number for Movsar Barayev, the leader of the hostage-takers.
With permission from the FSB, he asked Talkhigov to ring the terrorists in the hope of establishing a line of communication that could be used to secure the release of women and children.
“They were desperate to establish contact with the hostage-takers and thought that as a Chechen, who speaks the language but is not linked to the security services, I’d have a better chance,” said Talkhigov.
“I spoke to the Chechens many times. I knew the phone calls were being listened in to and after each call I was debriefed by the FSB, which took detailed notes.”
At first the Chechens reacted angrily to Talkhigov’s calls. In an effort to win their trust, he told them to be careful because there were snipers and armed personnel carriers outside.
“It was a general comment, nothing specific and I knew perfectly well that the FSB was listening,” he said. “All I wanted was to help release a few hostages.”
The next day, as Talkhigov was trying to negotiate the release of foreign captives, he was led into a room by several FSB officers.
“They started shouting at me, pushed me around and accused me of being one of the terrorists. One guy cocked his gun and threatened to shoot me.”
Another FSB officer offered him a glass of orange juice. Within minutes of drinking it the young Chechen became incapacitated. “I had no idea of what was going on,” he said. “I was in a trance and to this day I have memory loss.” He woke up in a prison cell.
The siege ended after three days when Russian security forces pumped gas into the theatre. They stormed the building and killed all the terrorists. Some 130 hostages also died.
Most of the victims perished as a result of the emergency services’ slow response in the aftermath. Relatives of the dead are still demanding that prosecutors investigate those in charge of the rescue operation.
At his trial, which was held behind closed doors, prosecutors who accused Talkhigov of being an accomplice produced only the recording in which he mentioned the snipers and personnel carriers. All other evidence, including the debriefing notes and other recordings, had been destroyed, the prosecutors claimed.
While the siege was underway, I met Talkhigov in the emergency headquarters. He told me Barayev’s number, which he had clearly been given by the FSB.
Eventually, I was able to enter the theatre and interview Barayev, but Talkhigov declined to accompany me: he feared the Chechens would not trust him.
“At first I thought this was just a big mistake,” said Talkhigov. “Then I realised that they had decided to let me hang. I still can’t believe this happened to me. I wanted to help and got nearly nine years in jail. I still dream that somehow the truth will come out and that the state will accept that I was framed. I’m innocent.”
The Sunday Times July 15, 2007
By Mark Franchetti, Moscow