Friday, September 30, 2011

A murky Mongolian saga

TO THE surprise of many, Bat Khurts, the head of Mongolia’s National Security Council, is back at his desk in Ulaanbaatar, and not sitting in a German prison, awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in a kidnapping in 2003. The charges that allowed his detention have been dropped. Among those surprised was the Foreign Office in Britain, apparently, where Mr Khurts was arrested last year in controversial circumstances. He was extradited to Germany in August, and his trial was due to begin on October 24th. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel is due in Mongolia on a planned visit on October 12th.

Besides affecting Mongolia’s relations with Britain, which are now tetchy, and with Germany, which is in its good books, the case has cast depressing light on the thuggery of Mongolia’s security services. It has also been a constant reminder of a grisly political assassination with long-lasting effects.

Mr Khurts faced charges related to a kidnapping in May 2003 in the French port of Le Havre. Damiran Enkhbat, a Mongolian who had gone into exile after being freed early from a jail sentence for assault, was duped into going to a McDonald’s for what was supposed to be a meeting with a compatriot. Instead, he was set upon by four men, drugged, bundled unconscious into a car and driven across Europe for four days, before being put on a Mongolian Airlines flight from Berlin to Ulaanbaatar. Mr Khurts, who at the time ran Mongolia’s main spy agency, was accused of being one of Mr Enkhbat's assailants, and the driver of the car.

On return, Mr Enkhbat was detained as a suspect in the brutal murder in 1998 of Sanjasuuren Zorig, who had been the most prominent leader of the country’s democratic revolution in 1989-90, and was at that time in government as the infrastructure minister. Some of his supporters believe that, at the age of just 36, he was about to become prime minister, and was assassinated on the order of corrupt politicians who saw their interests threatened. His murder remains unsolved.

Despite alleged torture, Mr Enkhbat never admitted any involvement. Amnesty International, a human-rights lobby, campaigned for him when he was denied access both to a lawyer and to medical care for a life-threatening condition. He died shortly after his release from prison in 2006, as a result, believe his family, of his maltreatment in detention. His children, who are German citizens, brought charges against Mr Khurts.

Mongolian officials do not bother to deny that the kidnapping happened. As if it were an unfortunate but rather trifling oversight, they say they have accepted it was wrong, apologised and everybody should move on. Clearly it did not affect Mr Khurts’s climb up the ladder of Mongolia’s security establishment. So it was natural that he should be the man designated last year to take part in talks with Britain on closer security co-operation.

He was given a visa, in response to an application accompanied by a diplomatic note verbale, and his trip was discussed in advance by the countries’ respective ambassadors and their host governments. But instead of chewing the cud over an important partnership, he found himself locked up: arrested on arrival at Heathrow airport.

Tsogtbaatar Damdin, state secretary at Mongolia’s foreign ministry, says Mongolia remains baffled by what he describes as the British “entrapment” of Mr Khurts. Like Germany, he insists that his release is purely the result of a judicial decision, unrelated to political considerations such as Mrs Merkel’s imminent visit.

That is still scheduled, though there must be a risk it will be derailed by unrelenting turmoil in the euro zone. But, says Mr Tsogbaatar, Mongolia is “grateful” to the Germans, and most Mongolians seem to take it for granted that the release is a goodwill gesture intended to smooth Mrs Merkel's way. Mr Khurts arrived back, if not quite to a hero’s welcome, than at least to the handshake of a deputy foreign minister (who was at the airport by coincidence, says Mr Tsogtbaatar).

A spokesman at the German embassy in Ulaanbaatar says that Mr Khurts was freed after his country’s second-highest court (after the constitutional court) ruled that charges of “Verschleppung”, a specific form of abduction covered under article 234(a) of Germany’s criminal code, should be dropped. This was the count which justified his detention. Charges of “deprivation of freedom” and “causing bodily harm” still stand, but Mr Khurts seems unlikely ever to face them.

The German spokesman says there were contacts with Britain before Mr Khurts arrived back in Mongolia on September 27th. But two days later, a foreign-office spokesman contacted by The Economist was unaware that he was free. Indeed, Germany seems to have managed the release very quietly. Few if any German and British newspapers have mentioned it.

Britain denies Mr Khurts was entrapped, and also emphasises the separation of its judicial and political processes. Indeed, having managed to antagonise Mongolia, a small but booming economy, with what turned out to be a fool’s errand of an extradition action, some officials may be wishing they were more co-ordinated than they are. By Banyan for The Economist

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