Survivor of Moscow blasts gets asylum

U.S. decision to take in a Putin foe who says the Kremlin was involved
in the 1999 apartment attacks is likely to raise tensions with Russia.
By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer MOSCOW

A woman who accused the Russian security services of a series of 1999 apartment-building bombings that killed hundreds of people has been granted political asylum in the United States.

Alyona Morozova, who survived the midnight bombing of her 18-story apartment building in south Moscow but lost her mother and boyfriend, has been notified that her petition claiming fear of persecution if she returns to Russia has been granted, her lawyer said Monday.

The decision by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is likely to raise tensions between Moscow and Washington. Until now, the U.S. has carefully avoided comment on the bombings, which Russian authorities blamed on militants from the breakaway region of Chechnya. Moscow cited the blasts as partial justification for its second war there.

Others, however, have charged that the government itself blew up the buildings to rally support for President Vladimir V. Putin, then prime minister, and the move to war.

The government has called such allegations "immoral" and often refers to the four massive explosions as an example of the terrorism threat faced jointly by Russia and the United States. Last year, two Chechen men were convicted of transporting some of the explosives used in the bombings. But suspicions of a government role arose when a white, powdery substance that appeared similar to the explosives was discovered in a fifth building and traced to a man believed to be a Russian security agent. Officials acknowledged that their own agents had placed the material but said it was sugar that was part of a drill.

Because the letter granting Morozova's application for asylum, received by her lawyer on Friday, gave no reason for the decision, it was unclear whether U.S. immigration services agreed with Morozova's assertion of government involvement in the bombings. A State Department official said the department does not comment on asylum cases.

But Morozova, now a 28-year-old student in Denver, said the decision indicated, at least, that U.S. officials believed she would face persecution in Russia because of her high-profile campaign for an international investigation into the case.

"Otherwise, there's no other explanation why they would give me political asylum," she said in a telephone interview. "This case has been so long and painful for me. I was really frustrated. I couldn't understand why nobody would believe me. People were dying."

Alex Goldfarb, director of the New York office of the Foundation for Civil Liberties, a group funded by Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky, said Western governments were becoming more suspicious of Russia's security services.

Among the incidents provoking concern, he said, was the recent poisoning of Ukraine's president-elect, Viktor Yushchenko, whose opponent was strongly backed by Moscow. No suspect has been identified in that case. "What you see is a change of attitude among Western institutions in general toward the issue of the apartment bombings, particularly after the poisoning of Yushchenko," Goldfarb said.

"Before it was, 'There's no absolute proof,' and so on. But I would say that the benefit of the doubt that was given generally to the Russian security services and Putin's regime with regard to the old Cold War dirty operations is gradually diminishing."

Berezovsky, a wealthy Russian businessman, has himself received political asylum in Britain. The U.S. and Britain have granted asylum to two associates of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was the republic's president before the beginning of the second Chechen war in October 1999. All four asylum cases reflect Western governments' growing conviction that Russia's law enforcement and justice systems are not providing adequate legal protection to its citizens, especially critics of the government.

Morozova's American attorney, P. Joseph Sandoval of Los Angeles, said a deciding factor in her case was probably evidence presented in recent months about the arrest of her attorney in Russia, Mikhail Trepashkin. Trepashkin, a former KGB agent, worked with Morozova and others on a parliamentary commission that investigated the apartment-bombing case. He was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison last year in what human rights groups have called a case of political repression. A parliament member who served on the investigative commission, Sergei Yushenkov, was shot to death in April 2003. Another commission member died of an unexplained food allergy in July 2003. Morozova cited both cases in her asylum petition.

"We believe [the asylum] was granted on the basis that we argued," Sandoval said, "which was that Alyona had reasonable fear of returning to Russia because of her political opinion regarding the bombing of the apartment complex."

Times staff writers Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.