Pair of Russian Reporters Believe They Were Waylaid
Two prominent Russian journalists known for their criticism of President Vladimir V. Putin’s Chechnya policies were hindered from reaching the scene of the school hostage crisis in the city of Beslan, raising questions about whether authorities were trying to keep them away, the journalists and some of their colleagues said Thursday.
Andrei Babitsky, a reporter with U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, was prevented from boarding a flight to the region Thursday and later was charged with “hooliganism,” said Andrei Trukhan, the station’s deputy news editor. Babitsky’s whereabouts late Thursday were unclear, he said.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said in a telephone interview from a hospital in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don that she became seriously ill on a flight to the area Wednesday and that her doctors said it appeared she had been poisoned.
Babitsky, reached by cellphone at a police station Thursday afternoon, said he was initially told that a dog trained to sniff explosives had reacted to his checked baggage.
Although no explosives were found, he was delayed an hour, he said.
Then, Babitsky said, he was accosted by two men who bumped into him aggressively and demanded that he buy them beer.
Police took all three to the airport police station, he said.
When the two men “finally realized they may have some problems with the police, they told me privately that they are simple parking attendants and that the airport security chief came up to them this morning, showed my photo and asked them to find me and pick a fight with me,” he said.
Politkovskaya said she felt fine Wednesday until after she accepted a cup of tea from a flight attendant on the trip to Rostov-on-Don.
“Immediately after I drank that tea I began feeling dizzy and soon passed out altogether,” she said. “I would come back to my senses and pass out again several times for the remainder of the flight. I finally came to in an intensive therapy ward in the Rostov infectious-diseases hospital.
“I am feeling slightly better but very, very weak,” she said. “The results of my samples are not ready yet, but doctors here say it must be some kind of poisoning. How horrible.”
Politkovskaya stopped short of placing blame for her illness, but she said it was “clear that the authorities don’t want journalists, especially independent journalists, to cover the hostage crisis in Beslan.”
Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief at Novaya Gazeta, said he believed that authorities didn’t want the two reporters “to get to the scene and relate to the public the political demands of the hostage-takers, among which the most important one is to withdraw troops from Chechnya.”
“The authorities in Moscow had full access to lists of passengers boarding this or that flight, and they acted swiftly,” he said. “I am sure Anna was poisoned. I don’t think they wanted to kill. They must have wanted just to incapacitate her.”
However, at the peak of her illness, he said, Politkovskaya’s heartbeat was very weak and her blood pressure very low.
“So that was a very close call,” he said.
Politkovskaya is known for reporting that is sympathetic to the people of Chechnya -- where rebels are battling for independence from Russia -- and critical of fighters on both sides.
In October 2002, she had been scheduled to be in Los Angeles to receive an award from the International Women’s Media Foundation but left for home suddenly to try to mediate a hostage crisis at a Moscow theater. She spent five hours in the theater in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the standoff, which ended with dozens of rebels and hostages killed.
Politkovskaya has previously been arrested in Chechnya by security forces and accused of entering the republic without proper credentials and not registering with the military. Babitsky also has encountered trouble with authorities in relation to his Chechnya reporting.
Trukhan, the Radio Liberty editor, said late Thursday that in the station’s last contact with Babitsky, the reporter said a court hearing had been set for today and that the police were letting him go.
“We are beginning to get a little worried now, because since then we couldn’t get in touch with him on his cellphone,” Trukhan said.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.