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2 suspects detained in Poland for attack on a Navalny ally in Lithuania

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2 suspects detained in Poland for attack on a Navalny ally in Lithuania
News

News

2 suspects detained in Poland for attack on a Navalny ally in Lithuania

2024-04-19 22:49 Last Updated At:22:50

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Two men have been detained in Poland on suspicion that they attacked Russian activist Leonid Volkov — an ally of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny — on the orders of foreign intelligence services, officials said Friday.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk later said on the social platform X that the two Polish “assassins” are under arrest, as well as a Belarusian working for Russia who had ordered the Poles to “assassinate” a Navalny associate. He said the Poles were linked to extremist soccer fan circles.

Volkov was attacked on March 12 outside his home in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where he lives in exile. The attacker smashed one of his car’s windows, sprayed tear gas into his eyes and hit him with a hammer, police said at the time.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced the arrest of two people to reporters in Vilnius and thanked Poland for its work.

“Two people have been detained in Poland on suspicion of beating Russian opposition leader Leonid Volkov. I thank the Republic of Poland for the excellent work it has done. I have discussed this with the Polish president and thanked them for their excellent cooperation,” Nausėda said.

Both suspects are Polish citizens previously known to police in their homeland. They traveled to Vilnius before the attack on Volkov and returned to Warsaw afterward, according to Lithuania’s deputy police chief, Saulius Briginas.

He said they were detained on April 3 in an operation in which Lithuanian police participated.

Lithuania expects them to be handed over in May, chief prosecutor Justas Laucius told reporters. If convicted on charges of causing bodily harm, they face up to three years in prison.

In Poland, Joanna Adamowicz, the spokesperson for a Warsaw court, said that the two men were put under arrest until May 13, on suspicion that “they had organized on the territory of the Lithuanian Republic an assault and caused damage to the health of Russian citizen L. W.," while “being active in an organized group and carrying out the orders of the special services of an alien country.”

Volkov's last name is spelled with a “W” in Polish.

The court in Warsaw's Praga district has decided to hand them over to Lithuania for the purpose of a criminal investigation, on the condition that they would serve any potential punishment in Poland, Adamowicz said in an email to The Associated Press.

Their lawyers have lodged complaints and the files have been sent to the Appeals Court in Warsaw, she said. It was not immediately clear how long the appeals could take.

Poland's Central Investigation Bureau of Police confirmed that its officers worked with Lithuanian police to arrest two people suspected of an attack on a Russian opposition activist in Lithuania in March.

The developments came a day after Poland announced the arrest of a Polish man suspected of being ready to spy on behalf of Russia’s military intelligence in an alleged plot to assassinate Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“There will be no leniency whatsoever for collaborators of the Russian services," Poland's Tusk said, referring to both cases.

Volkov said on X, formerly Twitter, that he didn’t know the details of the arrest, but “saw how energetically and persistently the Lithuanian police have worked over the past month on this case” and was “very glad that this work has paid off.”

“As for the details, we will find them out soon. Can’t wait to find out!” Volkov wrote.

Volkov suffered a broken arm in the brutal attack and was hospitalized. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “henchmen” at the time of responsibility in the attack and vowed to keep up his opposition work.

The attack took place nearly a month after Navalny’s unexplained death in a remote Arctic penal colony. He was Russia’s best-known opposition figure and Putin’s fiercest critic. Navalny had been imprisoned since January 2021 and was serving a 19-year sentence on charges of extremism widely seen as politically motivated.

Opposition figures and Western leaders laid the blame on the Kremlin for his death — something officials in Moscow vehemently rejected.

Navalny's funeral in the Russian capital on March 1 drew thousands of supporters, a rare show of defiance in Putin’s Russia amid an unabating and ruthless crackdown on dissent. Navalny's widow, Yulia, vowed to continue his work.

Volkov used to be in charge of Navalny’s regional offices and election campaigns. He ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and sought to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Volkov left Russia several years ago under pressure from the authorities.

Scislowska reported from Warsaw, Poland.

FILE - Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for the 2018 presidential election of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, looks on, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Dec. 15, 2021. Two people have been detained in Poland on suspicion of attacking Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov, an ally of the late activist Alexei Navalny, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda announced on Friday, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias, File)

FILE - Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for the 2018 presidential election of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, looks on, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Dec. 15, 2021. Two people have been detained in Poland on suspicion of attacking Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov, an ally of the late activist Alexei Navalny, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda announced on Friday, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias, File)

PARIS (AP) — The Syrian soldiers came first, at night, for the son, Patrick, a 20-year-old psychology student at Damascus University, and said they were taking him away for questioning.

They came back the next night for his father, Mazen.

Five years later, in 2018, death certificates from Syrian authorities confirmed to the Dabbagh family that the French-Syrian father and son would never come home again.

In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials — the most senior to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country's civil war — were responsible for their disappearance and deaths.

The four-day hearings, starting Tuesday, are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's government has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to hold on to power during the conflict, now in its 14th year.

The French trial comes as Assad has been regaining an aura of international respectability, starting to shed his long-time status as a pariah that stemmed from the violence unleashed on his opponents. Human rights groups that are parties to the French case hope it will refocus attention on the alleged atrocities.

Here's a look at those involved:

— Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau overseeing Syrian security and intelligence services. Allegedly worked directly with Assad. Now in his late 70s.

— Jamil Hassan, former Air Force intelligence director. Survivors testifying in the case allege having seen him at a detention center in the capital, Damascus, where the Dabbaghs are thought to have been held. In his early 70s.

— Salam Mahmoud, in his mid-60s, a former investigations official at a Damascus military airport believed to house the detention center. Mahmoud is alleged to have expropriated the Dabbaghs' house after they were taken away.

The three men are accused of provoking crimes against humanity, giving instructions to commit them and allowing subordinates to commit them through the alleged arrest, torture and killing of the father and son. They also are accused of confiscating their house and of putting Air Force intelligence services at the disposal of people who allegedly killed them.

The accused are being tried in absentia. French magistrates issued arrest warrants for them in October 2018, despite acknowledging that there was little likelihood of their extradition to France. Defense lawyers will not represent them and French magistrates determined they don't have diplomatic immunity.

“The three people accused are very senior officials of the Syrian system of repression and torture. This gives a particular tone to this trial. They are not small fish,” said Patrick Baudouin, a lawyer for rights groups involved in the case.

“The legal file is very detailed, full of evidence of systematic, very diverse and absolutely monstrous torture practices," Baudouin said.

Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh had dual French-Syrian nationality, which enabled French magistrates to pursue the case. The probe of their disappearance started in 2015 when Obeida Dabbagh, Mazen's brother, testified to investigators already examining war crimes in Syria.

Obeida Dabbagh lives in France with his wife, Hanane, and is also a party in the case. According to the trial indictment, seen by The Associated Press, he told French investigators that three or four soldiers came for Patrick around 11 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2013, during the height of Arab Spring-inspired anti-government protests that were met by a brutal crackdown. The soldiers identified themselves as members of a Syrian Air Force intelligence branch. Obeida also testified they searched the house, taking cellphones, computers and money.

They came back the next night for Mazen Dabbagh, who was 54 and worked as a counselor at a French high school in Damascus, and also took his new car, the brother said.

Their death certificates said Patrick died Jan. 21, 2014, and Mazen on Nov. 25, 2017, but didn't say how or where.

French investigating magistrates collected evidence from those who deserted the Syrian government and military, and prison survivors as they built the case.

Testifying anonymously, survivors' accounts speak in the indictment of rape and of being denied food and water; of beatings on the feet, knees and elsewhere with whips, cables and truncheons; of electric shocks and burnings with acid or boiling water; of being suspended from the ceiling for hours or days.

Investigators also studied images provided by a Syrian policeman, who anonymously turned over photographs of thousands of torture victims.

Cameras are generally banned from French criminal trials, but this one will be filmed for historical record.

In a separate investigation, French magistrates have also targeted President Assad himself but face questions about whether he benefits from presidential immunity.

Magistrates are investigating chemical weapons' attacks that killed more than 1,000 people and injured thousands of others in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013. They issued international arrest warrants for Assad, his brother Maher Assad, commander of the 4th Armored Division, and two Syrian army generals — Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan — for alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The French probe was opened in 2021 in response to a criminal complaint by attack survivors. The investigation is being conducted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which argues that in some cases, crimes can be pursued outside the countries where they take place.

The Syrian government and its allies have denied responsibility for the attacks.

The French warrants, very rare for a serving world leader, were seen as a strong signal against Assad’s leadership at a time when some countries have welcomed him back into the diplomatic fold. Victims' lawyers hailed the warrants as “a crucial milestone in the battle against impunity.”

The Paris appeals court is weighing whether Assad has absolute immunity as head of state. French prosecutors asked it to rule on that question at a closed hearing May 15.

That procedure does not impact the warrants for Assad’s brother and the generals.

In March, Swiss prosecutors indicted Rifat Assad, the president’s uncle and a former Syrian vice president, for allegedly ordering murder and torture more than four decades ago to crush an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, in the city of Hama, where thousands were killed.

A court in Stockholm put a former Syrian army general who lives in Sweden on trial in April for his alleged role in war crimes in 2012.

Courts in Germany found two former Syrian soldiers guilty in 2021 and 2022 of crimes against humanity. One was sentenced to life imprisonment, the other to 4 1/2 years for complicity. They had claimed refugee status in Germany before former detainees recognized them there. They were tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Surk reported from Nice, France. Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

FILE - In this photo released on Nov. 9, 2019 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus, Syria. In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek Tuesday May 21, 2024 to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials were responsible for Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh's disappearance and deaths. The hearings are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to keep power in Syria's civil war. (SANA via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released on Nov. 9, 2019 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus, Syria. In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek Tuesday May 21, 2024 to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials were responsible for Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh's disappearance and deaths. The hearings are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to keep power in Syria's civil war. (SANA via AP, File)

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