Chechen exile leader freed in Poland

Akhmed Zakayev was arrested on a Russian warrant accusing him of terrorism.

Warsaw: Exiled Chechen independence leader, Akhmed Zakayev, was freed from custody in Poland late Friday, after being arrested earlier in the day on a Russian warrant accusing him of terrorism.

"Poland respects democratic values," Zakayev said in a live broadcast shown by TVN24 television, smiling as he left a Warsaw courthouse.

He said that he planned to attend the final day on Saturday of a congress of Chechens near Warsaw, the event that had drawn him to Poland in the first place.

"Mr Zakayev is free. He has the right to go where he pleases," court spokesman Wojciech Malek said. “The court has not imposed any restrictions on him."

In a written ruling, the hearing judge, Piotr Schab, said he had taken into consideration the fact that in 2003 Zakayev was granted political asylum in Britain, where he is now based.

"It is clear that a decision by any member state has the same effect across the entire European Union," Schab said, quoted by the Polish news agency PAP.

Prosecutors have seven days to lodge an appeal against the ruling. But with Zakayev free to travel as he pleases, the issue of his possible extradition became purely theoretical.

Zakayev, 51, had arrived in Poland on Thursday to attend the three-day congress of some 300 exiles from conflict-torn Chechnya.

He travelled to the country despite warnings from Polish authorities that he risked being taken into custody.

"Because there was an international arrest warrant, police were under an obligation to detain him and to take him to prosecutors," police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said earlier Friday after he was detained.

Supporters had said on Thursday that Zakayev had planned in any case to surrender to Polish prosecutors during the visit.

Following his arrest on Friday, they questioned why he had been detained on this trip after having already been in Poland three times this year.

Zakayev was the European representative of Chechen separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, who died fighting Russian forces in 2005.

Before Zakayev`s arrest, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk had Thursday warned Russia not to count on getting the decision it wanted.

"The extradition procedure isn`t the same as extradition," he said at a European Union summit in Brussels.

But he also warned supporters of an independent Chechnya against staging any anti-Russian provocations.

In Moscow earlier Friday, Russia`s chief prosecutor Yury Chaika said Zakayev stood accused of "especially grave crimes including terrorism”, but pledged he would get a fair hearing if handed over.

Moscow has fought two devastating, full-blown wars with separatists in Muslim-majority Chechnya since 1994.

It is now battling a radical Islamist-fuelled insurgency there and in the neighbouring Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Pro-Moscow Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov had earlier Friday urged Poland to extradite Zakayev.

"I am sure that the Polish leadership will make the right decision, considering relations between Russia and Poland, and Zakayev will finally get his just desserts," he said.

Relations between Moscow and Warsaw have been stormy for years but the countries grew closer to reconciliation after the plane of Polish president Lech Kaczynski crashed in Russia in April, killing all 96 people on board.

Russian leaders have offered unprecedented displays of mourning since the accident, striking a chord with Poles.

The arrest was thus a thorny issue, Marek Menkiszak of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies said earlier Friday.

"Poland is in a sense being played with in a set-up, or attempted set-up, by the secessionist Chechen authorities and the Russian Federation," Menkiszak said.

Bureau Report

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