Where Is Arjan Erkel?

Washington Post, editorial: IN THE flush of his reelection victory, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that he would work to build democracy, civil society and the rule of law in Russia during the next four years. Few in the outside world are likely to put much faith in such a pledge, because Mr. Putin has spent the past four years dismantling what there was of civil society and democracy in his country. But if he'd like to bolster his flagging credibility in the West, there is one step Mr. Putin can take quickly. He can free Arjan Erkel. Mr. Erkel, a 33-year-old Dutch national, headed the mission of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Russian republic of Dagestan until Aug. 12, 2002, when he was kidnapped by gunmen. To this day the humanitarian group, renowned for its work in troubled areas around the world, is not sure who abducted Mr. Erkel or why. But it does know that he was being shadowed by Russian security forces in the days before his disappearance; that two officers of the Russian FSB agency, successor to the KGB, were at the scene of his abduction; and that the FSB has since shown, by producing videos and photos of Mr. Erkel, that it knows who is holding him, and probably where. This is also widely known: Doctors Without Borders has been helping refugees from Mr. Putin's war in Chechnya in neighboring Russian republics, including Dagestan, and has spoken out against efforts by his government to force those refugees to return home. Mr. Erkel's disappearance was convenient for the FSB: It led Doctors Without Borders to suspend operations in Dagestan. For many months the international agency worked quietly to free Mr. Erkel. But it has learned that his health has taken a life-threatening turn for the worse -- he reportedly suffers from a pulmonary infection -- and it has also been warned that Mr. Erkel's captors may have decided to kill him. Appeals to Russian authorities by the group and its many Western supporters, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have met with the same stonewall answer: We are doing our best. That hardly seems likely. In fact, Mr. Erkel is a prime example of how Mr. Putin and his fellow KGB alumni have declined to apply the rule of law in Russia. If they really intend to do so now, his case is the right place to start. © 2004 The Washington Post Company