The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the investigation into the October 9 murder of Aleksei Sidorov, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye. We believe that investigators have prematurely determined that the crime was unrelated to Sidorov's journalistic work.
According to local and international press reports, on October 9, two unidentified assailants stabbed Sidorov several times in the chest late in the evening, while he approached his apartment building in Togliatti, a city on the Volga River 600 miles (960 kilometers) east of the capital, Moscow, in Samara Region. The assailants fled after stabbing Sidorov, and the editor died in his wife's arms after she heard his call for help and came to the building's entrance.
Journalists at Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye--a newspaper known for its investigative reporting on organized crime, government corruption, and shady corporate deals in the heavily industrialized city of Togliatti--are convinced that the murder came in retaliation for Sidorov's work.
"All of our investigative work was supervised by Aleksei," a journalist at Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye told CPJ. Another journalist at the paper told CPJ that Sidorov had received unspecified threats in retaliation for his work.
Sidorov is the second editor-in-chief of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye to be murdered in the last 18 months. His predecessor, Valery Ivanov, was shot at point-blank range in April 2002. While Ivanov's murder remains unsolved, journalists at the paper believe that, like Sidorov, Ivanov was killed because of his work and the paper's commitment to investigative reporting.
Government officials initially agreed that Sidorov's murder appeared to be a contract killing in retaliation for his work. But a week after the killing, officials began offering different explanations about the motive for the murder. On October 16, the local head of the Interior Ministry, Vladimir Shcherbakov, said Sidorov was stabbed after refusing to give a stranger a sip of some vodka he had supposedly been drinking, the independent Moscow daily Gazeta reported.
That same day, deputy prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said that the murder was related to "the journalist's professional activity," the independent Moscow daily Kommersant reported. But the next day, he switched his story, calling the murder "an act of hooliganism," the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
According to the local press reports, Samara's Deputy Prosecutor General Yevgeny Novozhylov said that an intoxicated welder from one of the local factories, Yevgeni Maininger, stumbled upon Sidorov that evening and murdered him after a brief unspecified argument. Local police detained Maininger on October 12 and charged him with murder on October 21 after he allegedly confessed to the killing.
Journalists at Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye say they are skeptical, especially because Maininger misidentified the location where Sidorov had been stabbed outside of his apartment.
The October 9 murder of Aleksei Sidorov is a tremendous blow to Russia's already abysmal press freedom record. We are extremely concerned that prosecutors, police, and the FSB have concluded prematurely that the crime was unrelated to Sidorov's journalistic work. Contradictory statements from government officials and the ongoing concern of the paper's staff--who are afraid to be quoted for fear of their personal security--add further doubts to the results of the official investigation.
In light of your commitment to uphold the rule of law, we urge you to ensure that the official inquiry is conducted properly by aggressively investigating all of the potential motives in the case. An exhaustive and transparent investigation into Sidarov's murder is critically important given Russia's reputation as one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper