Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
After taking office in 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev promised to fight official corruption and ensure the thorough investigation of journalist murders. Although Medvedev seemed to be addressing separate issues, corruption and attacks on the press have converged at times in Russia. Two unsolved cases stand out.
Maksim Maksimov, 41, disappeared in downtown St. Petersburg in June 2004 while reporting on alleged police corruption. Authorities, who have suspended their investigation, appear to have disregarded credible evidence that might implicate police officers in the disappearance. Magomed Yevloyev, 37, died from a gunshot to the head while in the custody of Interior Ministry officers in Ingushetia in August 2008. Investigators have concluded that an officer fired the fatal shot accidentally, but they have left numerous questions unanswered.
The cases illustrate the broader struggle to maintain the rule of law. In reversing impunity in attacks on the press, the Kremlin must also move aggressively against corruption in law enforcement agencies.
Police looked into several leads, including a real estate deal and a potential car theft, Sergei Baluyev, Gorod’s chief editor, told CPJ. Within a few weeks, Maksimov’s property, car, and savings had been found intact—but investigators conducted only a cursory review of the reporter’s notes and his conversations with colleagues, Baluyev said.
By early 2005, AZHUR, a St. Petersburg organization that conducts in-depth news reporting, came up with a seemingly important lead. Yevgeny Vyshenkov, AZHUR’s deputy director, told CPJ that he and his staff had interviewed two people who said they were involved in Maksimov’s disappearance. At the time of his disappearance, AZHUR found, Maksimov had been looking into reports of corruption at a local Interior Ministry agency known as Operational Investigative Bureau No. 2. The story was far enough along that Maksimov had approached agency officers for comment.
Vyshenkov told CPJ he had interviewed a person who said he had been hired to lure the journalist to a local sauna under the guise of a “business meeting.” The person told Vyshenkov that two Interior Ministry officers and two others were waiting at the sauna. After being ordered to leave the room, the person told Vyshenkov, he heard the men assault Maksimov.
Vyshenkov said he had also met with one of the assailants, an ex-convict, who told him that the men had strangled Maksimov, put his body in the trunk of a car, and driven in two vehicles to woods outside St. Petersburg. There, the two officers drove off on their own with the body and returned a half-hour later, Vyshenkov said he was told.
AZHUR presented its findings to the regional prosecutor’s office. Vyshenkov said he had persuaded the front person and the assailant to tell prosecutors their story. Nikolai Sirotinin, the Maksimov family lawyer and himself a former government investigator, said AZHUR’s information was credible enough to warrant official investigation, but the prosecutor’s office did not appear particularly interested in following up. Sirotinin told CPJ that investigators would not clarify what leads they checked.
A.V. Zaitsev, a senior official with the regional investigative committee, told CPJ in a written statement that his staff had indeed checked whether Interior Ministry officers were involved in the crime. He did not elaborate on what investigators had done or found. The two officers implicated in AZHUR’s account were charged with forgery, false statement, and abuse of office in an unrelated case (they were later acquitted) but were not charged in the Maksimov case.
No concerted search for Maksimov or his body was undertaken until spring 2007, and that was at the insistence of the family. Sirotinin said he traveled to Moscow to persuade former colleagues in the Prosecutor General’s Office to send a forensics team to assist. The search came up empty.
Sirotinin said his own requests to review the official case file were turned down. Russian procedural code gives investigators discretion to disclose details of an active probe to a victim’s family and legal representatives; a family is entitled to access only when the investigation is formally finished. The investigation was suspended in 2008, according to Zaitsev, although it has not been officially closed, which would allow the family and its lawyer to review the file.
Maksimov’s mother, Rimma, told CPJ that she has tried to persuade a number of officials to re-examine the case. Her most recent effort, in March 2009, was discouraging: A prosecutor told her “the case has no future.” One aspect, however, has been settled. On November 30, 2006, at the behest of Maksimov’s family, the Dzerzhinsky District Court in St. Petersburg declared the reporter dead.
Magomed Yevloyev, publisher of the independent news Web site Ingushetiya, had attracted considerable attention by the summer of 2008. His site, known as a reliable source of information in the tightly controlled southern republic, had reported on government corruption, human rights abuses, and a string of unsolved disappearances. In a June 2008 interview with CPJ, Yevloyev said authorities had retaliated by filing more than a dozen lawsuits seeking to close Ingushetiya. The region’s two top officials at the time, President Murat Zyazikov and Interior Minister Musa Medov, had taken particular interest in shutting down the site, Yevloyev told CPJ. By August, the site’s top editor had fled the country in the face of continuing threats.
So when the publisher and the president shared an August 31, 2008, flight from Moscow to the region’s capital, Magas—and reportedly argued on the way—Yevloyev might have been anticipating difficulties. From the plane, Yevloyev sent a text message to a friend, one of about 20 people who had gathered at the airport to greet him, to say that “Zyazikov is flying with me.” Before Yevloyev could disembark, Interior Ministry officers detained him and placed him in a UAZ vehicle headed toward the city of Nazran. Yevloyev was not handcuffed and did not resist, according to the journalist’s friend, Magomed Khazbiyev.
Along the way, an Interior Ministry officer shot Yevloyev in the head. Within hours, authorities had declared that Yevloyev had been shot accidentally after he tried to seize a gun from one of three officers in the UAZ. The fatal shot happened to be fired by a second officer named Ibragim Yevloyev—a man ordinarily assigned to guard his uncle, Interior Minister Medov. (The officer is no relation to the victim.)
Astonished family and friends called the official account implausible, and they were not alone. As public outrage grew, Moscow intervened. On September 10, Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the federal Investigative Committee in Moscow, ordered subordinates in Ingushetia to open an inquiry, although by calling the case negligent homicide, Bastrykin, critics said, appeared to predetermine an outcome. A month later, regional prosecutors reported that they had finished the investigation and that Ibragim Yevloyev would be charged with negligent homicide, the business daily Kommersant and the news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel reported.
But what kind of investigation was it?
Case documents obtained by CPJ indicate that investigators interviewed Ibragim Yevloyev on the day of the shooting. In his statement, the officer said the journalist was calm and was not handcuffed when he suddenly began to struggle with another officer. “It all happened in a matter of seconds,” Ibragim Yevloyev said. “I had not yet turned to him all the way when Magomed Yevloyev abruptly leaned to the side and hit my gun, which at that very moment accidentally fired.” A forensic analysis dated September 15, 2008, showed the journalist had been shot at point-blank range and that the bullet had pierced his temple.
Musa Pliyev, a former lawyer for the journalist’s family, told CPJ it was unclear whether investigators had tried to re-enact the shooting. Neither was it clear that investigators had interviewed President Zyazikov or Minister Medov, who was at the airport when the plane arrived. The case documents show that investigators did try, unsuccessfully, to re-interview Ibragim Yevloyev. Minister Medov told investigators that his nephew and the other two officers in the UAZ (neither of whom have been identified) had been ordered by the Interior Ministry to leave the region, the case records show. Neither Zyazikov nor Medov responded to written questions submitted by CPJ in May 2009.
Public unrest prompted a shakeup in the regional leadership that fall. Zyazikov resigned in October and was subsequently named an adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev. Medov was reassigned to Interior Ministry headquarters in Moscow in late 2008, according to news reports. But the criminal case has gotten off to a slow start. Ibragim Yevloyev, who was also reassigned to Moscow, did not attend initial court proceedings on his negligent homicide charge. Lawyers for the officer have been quoted in news reports as saying that the case must be moved outside Ingushetia to ensure their client’s safety.
In January 2009, the Ingushetia Supreme Court ruled that there had been no legal basis to detain the journalist in the first place. (He was purportedly being held as a witness in a criminal investigation into an explosion.) The following month, an Interior Ministry investigator acknowledged in a letter to the new president, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, that he had signed the warrant for Magomed Yevloyev after the journalist had already been detained and shot, Kommersant reported. No charges will be filed in that case, Ingushetia prosecutor Yuri Turygin announced in March.
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