A court in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar convicted two Russian intelligence agents Wednesday in the assassination of an exiled Chechen separatist leader and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
The Feb. 13 slaying of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and the subsequent arrest of the Russians were widely seen as a sign of Moscow's willingness to target alleged terrorists even outside the country's borders. Yandarbiyev, who was living in exile in Qatar, died in a car bombing just after leaving a mosque. The attack also injured his 13-year-old son.
Moscow acknowledged that the defendants were intelligence officers visiting Qatar without diplomatic status. But Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov continued to insist Wednesday that they were innocent.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. Some observers said that having escaped that punishment, the men would probably be allowed to return to Russia once a diplomatic deal was reached.
"The Russian leadership issued an order to assassinate the former Chechen leader Yandarbiyev," Judge Ibrahim Nisf said in concluding the trial, which was conducted mostly behind closed doors. "The plan was discussed at Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow."
Aslambek Aslakhanov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, told the news agency Interfax that Moscow would do "everything possible to get the court to reverse its verdict."
The court session Wednesday was attended by Yandarbiyev's widow, Malika. Also present was Akhmed Zakayev, the Europe-based special representative of ousted Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who led the republic during a period of de facto independence in the 1990s and is now a guerrilla leader.
Zakayev said the verdict showed "who is the terrorist and who is the victim of terror."
A nationalist poet and children's author, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev became acting president of the self-declared independent Chechen republic at the end of the 1994-96 war there, after his predecessor was killed by a Russian missile. He headed peace talks between Chechen rebels and then-Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, which led to a temporary Russian withdrawal and three years of de facto independence. He was a proponent of radical Islam.
At Moscow's urging, the United Nations and the United States included him on lists of international terrorists subject to sanctions.
Russian authorities suspected him of being linked to the 2002 seizure by Chechen rebels of a Moscow theater. That standoff ended with the deaths of 129 hostages -- nearly all of them from a gas used by security forces who stormed the building -- and all 41 hostage takers, many of whom were shot.
Usman Ferzauli, Maskhadov's representative in Denmark, said in February that Yandarbiyev had spoken by telephone with the leader of the hostage takers during the theater siege, as claimed by Russian intelligence, which apparently monitored the conversation. But Yandarbiyev had been seeking the release of the hostages, he said.
"Why don't they make public the transcript of the entire conversation?" he asked.
The Moscow law firm defending the two men released a statement declaring that they had been "illegally seized at a Russian diplomatic residence" in Doha, the Qatari capital, five days after the assassination.
Because of this violation of diplomatic immunity, "the arrest and actions which then followed must be deemed illegal and void," it said, adding, "No credible evidence of the Russians' complicity to the crime was produced at trial."
Under Qatar's legal system, a life sentence implies a term of 25 years, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. But it appears the men might serve far less time than that.
"Formally the sentence may sound pretty harsh, but at the same time this verdict now opens a lot of possibilities for maneuvering," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank. "For example, it is quite possible that some agreement will be reached soon according to which the two prisoners will be handed over to Russia 'to serve their life terms in a Russian prison.' "
Moscow's stance suggests that the men would not remain imprisoned long if they were returned to Russia.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.