Reporter Missing

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In a cramped flat in a gray neighborhood on Moscow's eastern edge, Lyudmila Babitskaya never moves far from the TV or the phone. For over a month, she has been waiting to learn the fate of her husband, Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty reporter who, according to Russian authorities, was handed over at his own request to Chechen separatists three weeks ago in exchange for two Russian officers. "It started as a nightmare," she says of her anxious vigil, "but it's turning into a horror story."

Russia's Acting President Vladimir Putin declared in a recent television interview that a free press is "the key instrument that guarantees the health of society."

But does he believe that? Ominously, as the veteran KGB officer opened his campaign for the Russian presidency with that interview, he remained silent on Babitsky's disappearance. To compound concerns, last week he trotted out the official line that Babitsky is "alive and well," before adding in a callous aside: "As far as I understand, he feels free ..."

For Babitsky's wife, Putin's grim humor was only the latest cruel twist. She last spoke to Babitsky on Jan. 15. Detained by Russian soldiers on Jan. 16 as he left the ruins of the Chechen capital Grozny, Babitsky was held incommunicado for 12 days. Later his wife learned he had been in a prison in the village of Chernokozovo, where the Russians claim to sort terrorists from civilians. Human rights groups have recently reported widespread torture in this prison. On Feb. 3, the day he was to be released, the Russians suddenly swapped Babitsky for two Russian pows. The exchange, videotaped by the Federal Security Service, was later shown on Russian television. For his colleagues, who saw Babitsky handed over to masked men in camouflage, purportedly the same Chechen fighters Moscow terms terrorists, the outrage was immediate. "What kind of state arrests a journalist and then uses him in a pow swap?" asks Radio Liberty's Moscow editor, Mikhail Sokolov.

A Russian citizen, devout Orthodox Christian and father of two, the 35-year-old Babitsky has long been a pariah to Russian officialdom. They accuse him of consorting with the enemy. But Babitsky has infuriated officials who prefer a more pliant press. A former human rights activist, he gained acclaim for his coverage of the first Chechen war. In the current conflict, however, the state has drawn a new line: to report from the Chechen side is to support the enemy. Moscow's unctuous aide to Acting President Putin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, often reminds local media to toe the Kremlin line. Most comply, loyally glossing over reports of civilian massacres and Chechen resistance.

Babitsky, however, is not one to yield easily. When few reporters gained access to Chechnya, he brought the bloodbath home in unflinching reports from the war zone. "You can accuse Andrei of being stubborn in his insistence on reporting from Grozny," says Mario Corti, head of Radio Liberty's Russian service. "But you can't accuse him of treason." Babitsky, after all, has never shied away from reporting Chechen atrocities. He was, for example, the first Russian journalist to blame a Chechen warlord for the death of the U.S. aid worker Fred Cuny, killed in Chechnya in the previous war.

So where is Babitsky? On Feb. 9, a grainy video surfaced in Moscow, showing a weary Babitsky who said: "Everything is O.K. ... Don't worry. I hope I will be back home soon." But his voice and manner were unconvincing. Many of his colleagues believe the pow swap was a set-up, that Babitsky was only transferred from one arm of Russia's security forces to another. Others say he is being held by pro-Russian Chechens, perhaps for ransom. Last week, reports surfaced that Babitsky is in a prison, held by Russian forces, in the Chechen city Gudermes. Aleksandr Yevtushenko, a Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent searching for Babitsky in Chechnya, reported speaking to former inmates of the Gudermes prison who claimed to have seen Babitsky--and who said he appeared physically and psychologically beaten. During the entire time Babitsky was held by Russian authorities, he was denied the right to speak with a lawyer or his family. Moreover, the pow swap, as the U.N.'s human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, said last week, violated the Geneva Convention.

Babitsky has now become more than a cause celèbre. For those trying to predict the future of Russia under a Putin presidency, his case is an ominous sign of things to come. For months the Chechen war has been waged under a news blockade, but now Russian journalists fear that another campaign is emerging--a campaign against a free press.

Reported by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow