For journalists, Russia remains a perilous place

Group says country failed to carefully probe killings of 12 reporters, editors

July 09, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russia remains among the most dangerous countries for journalists because of the government's failure to thoroughly investigate the killings of a dozen reporters and editors over the past five years, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists said here yesterday.

There have been few arrests and no convictions in the killings of the 12 journalists, Ann Cooper, the executive director, said at a news conference, held a day before the first anniversary of the slaying of American journalist Paul Klebnikov.

Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine, was shot to death as he walked from his office toward a subway station.

The prosecutor general's office closed its investigation of Klebnikov's slaying two weeks ago, saying that he was shot on orders from a Chechen separatist profiled in Klebnikov's 2003 book, Conversations with a Barbarian.

Prosecutors asserted that the subject of the book, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a former deputy prime minister of Chechnya, was angered by Klebnikov's negative portrayal of himself and of radical Islam.

Nukhayev and two suspected accomplices are still at large. Two other Chechen men were arrested last fall and charged with participating in the assassination.

In an interview yesterday, Cooper said there was no way to judge the credibility of the official theory of the crime. "The prosecutor general's office did not make public evidence in support of this claim, and many people have greeted that statement with great skepticism," she said. "We would urge the prosecutor general to explain what evidence they have."

The U.S. Embassy released a statement yesterday saying that it had asked Russian prosecutors "for more information and for a better understanding of the basis for its conclusion."

American diplomats urged authorities "to continue the investigation until all evidence necessary to explain this crime satisfactorily is uncovered, and until all the perpetrators - both the actual murderers and those who ordered the crime - have been apprehended, prosecuted and held fully accountable for their acts."

Klebnikov's case has attracted far more attention than those of 11 Russian journalists slain, apparently in connection with their work, over the past five years.

"The authorities have been swifter to respond in this case," Cooper said. "And I'm sure that the difference is due to the fact that Paul Klebnikov was an American."

The failure of the justice system in these cases, she said, has had a "chilling effect" on reporters and has seriously restricted the content and scope of news coverage. "We believe there is less freedom of the press here today than there was in the last years of the Soviet Union," she said.

Representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists and two Russian journalists groups met privately with the friends and families of the 12 slain writers and editors Thursday, to compare notes and evaluate how aggressively authorities were pursuing their cases.

In the most recent case, Magomedzagid Varisov of the newspaper Novoye Delo was killed by automatic weapons fire near his home in the Russian republic of Dagestan, in the Caucasus, on June 28.

Friends and family of those slain said investigators have been reluctant to discuss the cases. At yesterday's news conference, lawyer Karen Nersisian said an eyewitness named not only the killers in the case of one slain journalist, but the man who hired them. "We ... pleaded with prosecutors to provide security for her," Nersisian said. The witness disappeared a short time later.

Last year, Russian authorities claimed to have solved one high-profile slaying: the killing of Aleksei Sidorov, the crusading editor of the newspaper Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye.

Sidorov, shot to death on Oct. 9, 2003, was the second editor in chief of the paper to be killed in two years.

Police arrested a 29-year-old welder and accused him of shooting Sidorov after a quarrel in the street. But the judge threw the case out, saying the evidence did not hold up.

"When you read this case, it seemed kind of insulting because it seemed so weak," Cooper said. "They didn't have the right guy. It appears what they did was grab somebody convenient and try to make him the scapegoat. Now he's been acquitted, and there have been no new arrests."

In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report saying that Russia was among the five most dangerous countries for reporters, the others being the Philippines, Iraq, Bangladesh and Colombia.

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