Turkey, Russia exchange Chechen prisoners for Tatars

It has emerged that two Russian agents jailed in Turkey in connection with the deaths of Chechen dissidents were extradited to Russia as part of a prisoner swap enabled by Turkey's legal state of emergency.

al-monitor Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (R) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a ceremony before their meeting, Kiev, Ukraine, March 20, 2015. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

assassination, intelligence, recep tayyip erdogan, emergency law, turkey-russia relations, chechnya, chechen jihadists

Nov 29, 2017

Abdulwahid Edelgiriev was about to take his niece shopping in an Istanbul suburb in November 2015 when a car blocked his path. A man leapt out of it and took aim at the Chechen separatist fighter and missed. As Edelgiriev fled, his assailants gunned him down, stabbed him in the neck and left him to bleed to death.

Nearly five months later, on April 8, 2016, two Russian agents were arrested in Istanbul and jailed for their alleged role in Edelgiriev’s murder and in the deaths of seven other Chechen dissidents living in Turkey. The pair carried fake documents identifying them as Alexander Smirnov and Yury Animisov. Moscow’s Rosbalt news agency reported at the time that Smirnov’s real name was Valid Lurakhmaev. He belonged to a Chechen mafia group in Moscow in the 1990s and his specialty was hit jobs.

Today it emerged that both men were extradited to Russia under the terms of an emergency measure adopted in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt that allows for the extradition or swapping of prisoners if it's deemed in the national interest. Less than 24 hours later, Russia freed a pair of Muslim Tatar dissidents and sent them to Turkey. Cumhuriyet named the men as Ilmi Omarov and Ahmet Ciygoz and reported that they were part of a swap. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had called for the Tatars’ release during a recent trip to Ukraine.

The emergency decree numbered 694 was thought to have been crafted in part to secure the extradition by the United States of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni imam who is accused of masterminding the botched putsch and also that of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-Turkish gold trader who is expected to appear in a New York federal court today as a star witness for the prosecution in a massive scam to evade US trade sanctions on Iran.

“Instead, they appear to have benefitted Russia,” said Erdal Dogan, a prominent human rights lawyer. He told Al-Monitor, “Such provisions are in direct conflict with universal principles of justice and human rights. How does extraditing people involved in murdering those who have sought haven in Turkey benefit Turkey or the rule of law?”

Turkey’s harboring of Chechen and other Russian Muslim dissidents has long been a sore in relations between the two neighbors.

“Russia wants extraditions, Turkey resists because they are Recep Tayyip Erdogan supporters. Chechen flags were seen at post-coup rallies,” said Dimitar Bechev, an academic and author of “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.” Bulent Arinc, a former deputy prime minister in Erdogan’s Cabinet, played a critical role in fending off Russian demands. “But now he’s gone, the Russian Security Service uses proxies [to carry out murders on Turkish soil], Ankara remains silent and Chechens have begun to stay away from Turkey,” opting to take refuge in Western Europe instead, Bechev told Al-Monitor.

Turkey’s Islamists feel a strong affinity with the Muslim Chechens and hundreds — some claim thousands — of Turks are thought to have joined them in their fight against the Russians at the height of the Chechen insurrection in the 1990s. “During the first Chechen war (1994-1996), Turkish authorities played host to exiled Chechen warlords and allowed several Turkish mayors who were members of the Prosperity Party [Refah], an Islamic party, to provide medical aid and general support for the Chechen guerrillas,” wrote Marc Brody, an independent journalist who specializes in the Caucasus in a paper for the Jamestown Foundation. Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul on the Refah ticket in 1994.

Many of the Chechen fighters and their Turkish comrades went on to join jihadis in Syria, notably the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which now calls itself Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The slain Chechen, Edelgiriev, was allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin and reportedly joined the outfit as well.

Throughout the 1990s, Turkey was a haven for Chechen refugees — and fighters — and used its leverage over them to extract concessions from Russia. As Brody explained, “On the one hand, Turkey proves to Russia its good intentions by putting pressure on the Chechen diaspora. On the other, it keeps open opportunities for the Chechen guerrillas. Using this strategy, Turkey retains a powerful tool in its … negotiations with Russia on commercial and economic matters.”

This dynamic may help to explain why Turkey has been scene to a slew of assassinations thought to have been carried out on behalf of Russia’s intelligence services. They include the triple murders in September 2011 of three Chechen militants accused of bombing Moscow’s Domodedovo airport earlier that year. The men were gunned down in the heart of Istanbul as they were walking home from Friday prayers by “a man dressed in black, with a black wig and black gloves,” the BBC reported.

Turkey is no safe haven for Russians, either. In December 2016, Russia's ambassador to Turkey was murdered by an off-duty Turkish police officer during a public event. "Don't forget Aleppo!" he shouted before being shot dead by Turkish security officials himself. Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for the ambassador's murder in a letter posted online.

Until recently, Turkey had offered sanctuary and allegedly loads of weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra in the hopes of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it has been gradually distancing itself from the rebels and cooperating with Russia after the downing by Turkish forces of a Russian air force jet over the Syrian border in November 2015. The move sent Turkish-Russian relations in a tailspin, costing Turkey billions of dollars in lost trade. Turkey has since been assiduously courting Moscow to work toward restoring relations. Moscow is now calling — and some Chechens may well argue, firing — most of the shots.

Yet some analysts believe Ankara's decision to hand over the Russians might augur a broader diplomatic play for regional influence. Nate Schenkkan, the project director for Nations in Transit for Freedom House, told Al-Monitor, "It's very interesting in terms of Turkey's efforts to show itself as a regional balancer and force again. Getting the release of the Crimean Tatars was a significant gesture for Ukraine." Schenkkan added, "It would make sense if Turkey gave up something for their release. Russia doesn't normally do things for free."

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