Russia chills journalist in reminder of old days

Police come knocking with warrant to take him to mental hospital

January 21, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Aleksandr Khinshtein, a 25-year-old newspaper reporter with a penchant for writing nasty articles about powerful officials, was home in bed when the police came for him. In a chilling reminder of the Soviet past, they were armed with a warrant to take him to a mental hospital.

"It was a political order," his mother, Inna A. Regider, said yesterday. "It's the same thing they used to do to dissidents. He's completely healthy mentally and they're looking for an excuse."

Although his lawyer managed to fend off the police in a five-hour confrontation, Khinshtein went into hiding yesterday. The incident was deeply unsettling to journalists, who said that even though Khinshtein was suspected of representing the viewpoint of the FSB, a successor to the KGB, and was one of the highly visible combatants in the mudslinging media wars here, the authorities had gone much too far.

"This is persecuting a journalist for his professional activities," said Ludmila Scherbina, a spokesman for the Russian Union of Journalists. "If they think he has violated the law, they should take him to court."

Fortunately for Khinshtein, when the police came to the door Tuesday morning, he was ill and had a certificate from his doctor, the usual procedure when someone misses work.

"That saved him," his mother said. "If they had gotten him into a car, they could have injected him with something to make him behave abnormally."

Khinshtein's lawyer, Andrei Muratov, pointed out to the police that under Russian law, a person officially registered as sick cannot be taken away for investigation, and persuaded them to retreat.

Khinshtein works for one of Russia's most popular newspapers, Moskovsky Komsomolets. Though the paper leans heavily on coverage of celebrities and sensation, it also offers serious investigative reporting.

In 1994, Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter Dmitri Kholodov, who had been investigating military corruption, was blown up by a suitcase bomb.

Khinshtein has been attacking Boris A. Berezovsky, one of Russia's financial oligarchs, and Vladimir Rushailo, who as head of the Interior Ministry is the country's top policeman.

Khinshtein recently accused Rushailo of intervening to drop criminal charges against friends and of heading off an investigation of Berezovsky, who was connected to a company accused of bugging Kremlin officials and members of Boris N. Yeltsin's family.

He accused Berezovsky of helping to finance Islamic militants fighting in Chechnya. In addition to writing about Rushailo and Berezovsky, Khinshtein has attacked them on his Sunday evening television show, broadcast by TV Center, a station controlled by Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.

Politically savvy Russians saw Khinshtein as an instrument of the FSB in the highly political wars. They saw Berezovsky's interests as being represented by Sergei Dorenko, who has a weekly analysis program on the powerful ORT station. So the action against Khinshtein has been interpreted as part of a larger campaign, reflecting fierce political infighting.

"Anything can happen to a journalist in Russia," said Oleg V. Panfilov, who works for the Glasnost Foundation, which is concerned with protecting the rights of journalists. "Everything will depend on the caliber of his patron. To all appearances, his patron is fairly influential."

His editors said this week's police action was prompted by Khinshtein's investigations into corruption.

"It was a pure political provocation," said Pyotr Spektor, deputy editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets. "For Rushailo and Berezovsky, he was like a bone in the throat. They would like to have him locked up, and any method would do."

Muratov, Khinshtein's lawyer, said the police gave no details about any charges against the reporter, saying only that sending him for a psychiatric evaluation was in the interest of their investigation.

Russia has been curbing the work of journalists recently, especially from covering the war in Chechnya.

In response to questions about the incident, Vladimir Martinov, the Interior Ministry spokesman, sent a statement by fax that said Khinshtein had been charged with using false documents and that he had failed to appear for questioning Tuesday. The statement said that because Khinshtein had been disqualified from the draft for medical reasons and had been treated in "specialized clinics," investigators decided that a psychiatric examination would be helpful.

Martinov said it was decided to take Khinshtein into custody because he was so well known in Moscow and because "his connections could hinder the process of investigation."

Apparently, Khinshtein was being investigated in connection with an incident in 1997, when he was stopped in a car and police found irregularities with his driver's license. Spektor said it was peculiar that the investigation should be reopened more than two years later and that Khinshtein should be ordered to a psychiatric hospital in Vladimir, a four-hour drive from Moscow.

"If they had succeeded in doing this," Spektor said, "anyone could find himself in a mental hospital or in Lefortovo," the notorious KGB prison.

Vladimir Mukusev, director of Khinshtein's television program, "Secret Materials," said the authorities have begun an offensive against journalists.

"It means the command has been given: Attack!" he said.

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