Joan Smith: Russia shows contempt for human rights

The <i>IoS</i> columnist on the real reason her friend has been named a spy
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The Independent Online

I'm never sure what people mean when they accuse someone of being a spy – whether they're talking about 007-style hidden cameras or the mixture of observation and gossip which makes up the bulk of intelligence reports.

Last week the Russian news agency Interfax claimed that a British diplomat in Moscow was "probably" a high-ranking officer in British intelligence. Interfax named Chris Bowers, the British embassy's acting director of trade and investment, accusing him of holding "suspicious" meetings with the opposition group Committee 2008 and human rights activists from the North Caucasus. The latter includes Chechnya, where Russia has fought two savage wars, and North Ossetia, where a school siege ended in the deaths of more than 300 people in 2004.

If Chris has had such meetings, it wouldn't surprise me. I've known him since 2002, when he was based in London as deputy head of the Human Rights Policy Department at the Foreign Office. At the time, I chaired English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee and Chris helped me set up meetings with FCO desk officers, put me in touch with British embassies and asked my advice about countries where I had fresh knowledge of human rights abuses. These ranged from Cuba, which staged a round-up of dissidents on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, to Uzbekistan, where the new British ambassador, Craig Murray, was uncovering evidence of torture.

Collecting such information does not make someone a spy, however, and there's plenty of it to assemble in Russia. I'll never forget the afternoon I received a phone call telling me about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist I knew through PEN. The last time I saw her she looked wan and fragile after being poisoned on a flight to cover the Beslan siege. In October 2006, she was shot in the head as she entered the lift of her apartment block in Moscow, only two days before she was due to publish a report on torture in Chechnya. More than 20 journalists have died in suspicious circumstances in Russia since 2000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in which reporters have to operate.

At the G8 summit in Japan last week, Gordon Brown used his first meeting with President Medvedev to raise a list of grievances, not least Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, chief suspect in the murder in London of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. In the same week, another unnamed source, this time in British intelligence, claimed there was state involvement in Litvinenko's death, and it may be that the accusation against Chris is part of the usual tit for tat.

To be frank, nothing would surprise me about Russia, where the British Council's activities outside Moscow have been shut down and its employees harassed. So has the British ambassador, whose car has been trailed by young thugs. On the international front, Russia has just used its UN veto, lining up with China to vote down new sanctions against Robert Mugabe after he stole Zimbabwe's presidential election. These regimes stick together; as I remarked to a friend last week, Russia is the new Soviet Union.

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