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Harsh punishment would not fix Russian impunity

Kazbek Gekkiyev, a VGTRK television reporter, was killed by suspected Islamist guerillas, investigators claimed. (AP/VGTRK Russia)

Every second crime committed in Russia goes unsolved, President Vladimir Putin said Friday, addressing a conference of the nation's high-ranking Interior Ministry officials. "The low crime-detection rate and impunity for the criminals do not serve justice but undermine public trust in law enforcement agencies, as well as the state per se," Putin said, according to his website.  

The leader was right - impunity is a grave problem for his country. Among the unsolved crimes are numerous attacks on and killings of independent and critical journalists. In at least 17 cases of journalists murdered in Russia in the last decade, no gunman or mastermind has been brought to justice, CPJ research shows.

"I ask you to pay the most focused attention to improving the quality of operative and investigative work on all levels," Putin told the officials. A look at CPJ's Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country's population, shows how badly Russia needs just that.

The most recent murder took place just two months ago: Kazbek Gekkiyev, a news anchor with state-owned broadcaster VGTRK, was shot dead while walking home after work in Nalchik, a city in Russia's volatile North Caucasus. Shortly after the murder, authorities named the suspected killers as Zeitun Boziyev and Inoyat Tabukhov. Both are suspected members of a radical Islamist guerilla group, investigators told the press.

On January 31, the regional parliament in Gekkiyev's native Kabardino-Balkaria Republic asked federal authorities to consider toughening punishment for those involved in attacks against journalists. According to the independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel, the legislators suggested that such attackers be imprisoned for life or even face capital punishment, which is banned in Russia.

Although the legislators' call for tougher sanctions might sound appealing to those who want to curb journalist murders, it will hardly solve the problem of impunity. The fight to punish the killers of journalists requires not only naming the suspected killers and bringing them to justice but also finding and prosecuting the masterminds. This has not been happening in Russia, CPJ research shows.

Authorities have adopted a trend of declaring that the killers of various journalists belong to radical Islamist groups or guerilla organizations, and even announced the suspects to the public. However, none of those suspects have been able to publicly defend themselves, because they died before having their day in court. For example, in the case of prominent human rights reporter Natalya Estemirova, authorities said the alleged murderer was killed during a firefight with a special operations squad.

Gekkiyev's murder has been no exception. Last month police shot dead one of the suspects, Boziyev, during his attempted arrest. Now we will never know whether he was involved in the journalist's murder, and if he was, he will never be able to tell anyone who ordered it.

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