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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Trepashkin Speaks

Finally freed from captivity after being arrested just before Vladimir Putin's last bid for the presidency, Mikhail Trepashkin tells his story to the Times of London:

A RETIRED Russian intelligence officer has revealed that a former colleague tried three times to recruit him for a state-sponsored operation to “get rid of” Alexander Litvinenko, the agent killed in London last year with radioactive polonium-210.

Mikhail Trepashkin, a lieutenant colonel who fell out with the Federal Security Service (FSB), formerly the KGB, was released last week after serving four years in prison on charges he believes were politically motivated. In an interview with The Sunday Times, he said he was first approached in early September 2002 by a former colleague of Litvinenko known as Viktor.

Viktor said he had been sacked by the FSB, then rehired to work with a counterintelligence unit. He knew that Trepashkin was in regular contact with Litvinenko, who had fled to London and was working for Boris Berezovsky, the exiled tycoon and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin. “Viktor told me that a very serious group had been set up to sort out all matters linked to Litvinenko and Berezovsky once and for all,” said Trepashkin in his first comments to the western press since he was freed. “He wanted me to help him track down a relative of Litvinenko who lived in Moscow. I suspected he was planning something nasty to put Litvinenko under pressure. “‘Are you out of your mind?’ I said to him. ‘Are you trying to recruit me to help carry out an assassination? Forget it’.”

In a move that will infuriate the FSB and further strain relations between Russia and the West, Trepashkin, 50, has agreed to make a formal statement detailing his allegations to the European Court of Human Rights in support of Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, who is seeking to force the Russian government to accept responsibility for her husband’s murder. Trepashkin alleges that Russia’s security services had been planning to kill Litvinenko for years. He said that about two months after the September meeting, Viktor approached him again. This time, Viktor told him the FSB was determined to silence both Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky, a Russian historian based in America. Felshtinsky had helped Litvinenko write a controversial book in which they claimed the FSB was behind a wave of apartment block bombings in 1999 that claimed 300 lives and provided the trigger for an invasion of Chechnya. “He told me that a special group had been dispatched to Boston, where Felshtinsky was based, to carry out surveillance,” Trepashkin recalled. “I was left with the clear impression that things were getting serious and that the FSB was preparing something against both men. I warned Litvinenko about it and he took it very seriously.” Viktor asked to meet on a third occasion in early 2003, when Trepashkin was helping an independent commission investigating the allegations of an FSB role in the apartment block bombings.

This time Viktor said his contacts in the FSB wanted Trepashkin to travel to London to meet Litvinenko in a hotel. “He said that all I had to do was get together with him so that other agents could get him in their sights and start 24-hour surveillance.” Trepashkin had received threats to end his investigation into the 1999 bombings and Viktor implied that he would be safe if he co-operated. Trepashkin applied for a visa to visit Britain but said that, as a friend, he would again have warned Litvinenko of the danger. In the event, the visa application was turned down. Litvinenko died last year after apparently drinking tea laced with polonium at a London hotel where he had met Andrei Lugovoi, another former FSB officer.

“Everything Viktor said to me finally fell into place when I heard Litvinenko had been poisoned,” said Trepashkin. “From the first moment, I had no doubt the FSB was behind his killing and I realised that Viktor had not been bluffing. “This could not have been carried out without the help of state structures. Litvinenko was killed out of revenge and to send the message that no one is safe, no matter where you flee, if you throw dirt at the FSB.”

The FSB has denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death. It says he investigated organised crime, had no state secrets and was too small a fish to warrant any such operation. But while Trepashkin’s testimony is far from conclusive evidence of FSB involvement, it undermines claims that Litvinenko’s former colleagues had forgotten him. According to Trepashkin, Viktor, in particular, despised Litvinenko. He blamed his former colleague for talking him into participating in a press conference in 1998 during which Litvinenko and several colleagues accused their FSB bosses of extortion and ordering contract killings. Shortly afterwards Litvinenko was jailed and Viktor lost his job. According to Trepashkin, Viktor demanded £20,000 compensation from Litvinenko. Trepashkin said Viktor and some serving FSB officers were also concerned about rumours that Litvinenko was going to write another book implicating them in several murders. Trepashkin had resigned from the FSB after claiming he had been prevented from investigating alleged collusion between senior security services figures and Chechen rebels. Litvinenko and other officers said they had been ordered to kill Trepashkin. Instead they tipped him off and invited him to take part in the press conference.

Two years later, when Litvinenko was in London, Trepashkin, who is a lawyer, agreed to represent the relatives of a woman killed in one of the apartment block bombings. He started investigating the explosions, which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen terrorists but which some opposition figures suspected could have been state-sponsored. His work brought him back into contact with Litvinenko. The two often talked on the phone, exchanged information and became friends. “It became apparent to me that there was something very murky about the bombings,” recalled Trepashkin. “I became convinced that the security services had a hand in them.”

When police released an artist’s impression of a man said to have rented a basement flat used in the bombings, Trepashkin claimed he recognised the suspect as Vladimir Romanovich, someone with close FSB links. Two other witnesses supported the claim. Trepashkin said that after he made the allegation, a new sketch was released. Romanovich himself is believed to have been killed in a hit-and-run car accident in Cyprus a few months after the bombings. Trepashkin had also spoken to the landlord who rented the basement of the building in Moscow where a bomb went off. He said the man had been pressured by the FSB to identify falsely a Chechen as the tenant.

Whether or not these allegations are true, there is little doubt that Trepashkin’s former bosses at the FSB took them as a sign that he should be silenced. In October 2003, a week before he was to present some of his findings in court during the trial of a man accused of one of the bombings, Trepashkin was arrested on suspicion of illegal arms possession. He was sentenced to four years for divulging state secrets — making copies of FSB files. Trepashkin, who was declared a political prisoner by Amnesty International, said the evidence against him was trumped up. “They arrested me because the FSB wanted to put an end to my investigation,” he said.

A father of five, Trepashkin spent seven months of his four-year sentence in solitary confinement. In breach of prison regulations, he was denied a TV, radio and newspapers throughout his term. For two years he was not allowed visits by his family and went on several hunger strikes. He was held in a tiny, two-man cell and allowed out for only 30 minutes a day to pace a small courtyard, covered with nets and sheeting to block out natural light. His face was ashen and he wheezed as he spoke. “Once, in the dead of winter, I was locked up for a couple of days in solitary as a punishment for writing a complaint,” Trepashkin recalled. “Outside, the temperature dropped to -35C. Inside, the walls of my cell were covered in ice."

“I was often threatened and there were times I thought I would not make it out alive, but they didn’t break me. Nor did they manage to silence me. I won’t flee abroad. I see it as my duty to continue speaking out, even if I don’t feel safe.”

Read more about Putin and the Kremlin

Read more on the Trepashkin case on a site set up by the Foundation of Civil Liberties - a non profit political pressure group established by Boris Berezovsky

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