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Impunity still reigns in beating of Oleg Kashin

A signboard held outside an Interior Ministry building in Moscow in 2010 reads: 'Journalist Oleg Kashin is beaten. I demand perpetrators and masterminds be found.' (Reuters/Denis Sinyakov)

A year ago, on a November night, two unidentified assailants awaited Oleg Kashin, a correspondent for the Russian business daily Kommersant, by his home on a central Moscow street, a 10-minute walk from the Kremlin. The two had hidden steel rods in bouquets of flowers.

With those special bouquets, they struck Kashin 56 times in 90 seconds. They hit him on his head, his hands, and his legs. His injuries were so severe that doctors medically induced a coma for two weeks.

This barbaric act shocked Russia's journalist community. The beating symbolized an attack on journalism itself. Perhaps this is the reason why, for the first time in a long time, journalists from various, often competing publications came together in solidarity in the aftermath of the incident. They held a sustained vigil in front of the Interior Ministry in Moscow and a demonstration, calling for better protection of journalists.

This attack was promptly condemned by Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev. Using his Twitter account, Medvedev pledged that the criminals would be apprehended and punished "no matter what their position in society, no matter what merits they might possess." The day after, Medvedev tasked Russia's Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev with personally supervising the investigation into the attack. Authorities opened a criminal case, classifying the attack as an attempt on Kashin's life.

One year later, however, none of Kashin's assailants have been arrested; those who commissioned the crime remain unknown. Most of Russia's media ignored the anniversary of the attack--perhaps because the preliminary results of the investigation have not been published. Kashin himself signed a non-disclosure agreement on the investigation.

People close to the investigation revealed details about it to CPJ. The main conclusion that can be made based on those details is that the crime was very well planned. Three assailants took part in the attack -- one was waiting for the other two in a getaway car, a black Ford Focus sedan. The car was caught on security video cameras; it turned out to be stolen, its license plates forged.

The attackers, the investigation shows, started surveying Kashin's movements on October 31, a week before they struck. Investigators were able to determine that based on the records of mobile phones active in the area at the time of the attack. The mobile phones the attackers used were cheap, designed for one-time-use, and equipped with unregistered SIM cards. They were first activated in late October, in a Moscow park, where, detectives believe, the attackers "rehearsed" their assault on Kashin. The mobile phones were last used the night of the attack. Right after the latter, one of the attackers made a phone call from his cell to a telephone number that remains unidentified. The telephone receiving the call, people close to the investigation told CPJ, was equipped with the rare and expensive software IMEI, which does not allow tracing of its true number. The IMEI system is used by intelligence and spy agencies. Investigators believe that this is the telephone, belonging to the mastermind of the attack.

Kashin's case landed in the hands of one of the most reputable investigators in Russia--Sergei Golkin of the Investigative Committee, the agency tasked with solving the countries' most serious crimes. Golkin earlier participated in the high-profile probes into the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov, which remain unsolved.

In a year's time, Golkin and his team carried out a vast quantity of investigative actions in Kashin's case, according to people close to the probe. Most notably, the investigation identified at least three persons who sought and procured Kashin's home address in October 2010, days before the attack. Those persons had access to resources and databases available exclusively to law-enforcement agencies. (Kashin rents an apartment and his address is only known to a close circle.) All three have been questioned as part of the case. The first one, Roman Teryushkov, is a former leader of the pro-Kremlin youth group Molodaya Gvardiya Edinoi Rossii (Young Guards of United Russia) and a son of an influential Moscow businessman. After he was questioned in Kashin's case not long after the attack, Teryushkov left Moscow. His whereabouts are unknown.

The other two persons are Kristina Potupchik, press secretary of the Russian Federal Agency for the Youth, a government structure; and her acquaintance Roman Verbitsky, a representative of one of the most aggressive "soccer fan" groups in Russia, which is closely connected with the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours). This group is known for its ultranationalist views and activities, as is Molodaya Gvardiya Edinoi Rossii.

In addition, detectives found and confiscated from Verbitsky's apartment metal rods like those used to beat Kashin. This type of rod has become the trademark weapon of aggressive "soccer fans," who are sometimes used in attacks on oppositionists and whose loyalties can be bought for the right price.

After such a promising start, where is the investigation into Kashin's case now? Kashin told CPJ that until spring 2011, the probe led by Golkin had focused on the theory that the attack against him was carried out by a certain pro-Kremlin youth group. "Investigators conducted hundreds of interrogations in my case," Kashin said. "Not only my friends, colleagues, and work contacts were questioned, but also the main suspects in the case."

The investigation considered three main bodies of journalistic work as possible motive for the attack, Kashin told CPJ. The first were his articles about the destruction of a forest in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, in order to build a highway. (That project gained international notoriety when one of the highway's most ardent critics, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was beaten nearly to death in November 2008, and then convicted for slander; an investigation into the attack on him remains unsolved.)

In relation to this possible motive, several representatives of private security firms unofficially under the control of Khimki's powerful mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko, were questioned. (Those representatives are also suspected of involvement in the attack on Beketov.)

The second possible motive detectives looked at was Kashin's blogs criticizing Pskov Regional Governor Andrei Turchak. The governor had publicly threatened Kashin in August 2010, three months before the attack, with retaliation if Kashin did not apologize for comments scornful of Turchak's appointment. Investigators questioned Turchak as a witness in the Kashin case, but no further progress has been reported.

The third, and initially most investigated, motive was Kashin's work on ultranationalist groups.

Detectives questioned representatives of Molodaya Gvardiya Edinoi Rossii, whose website pledged near the time of the attack that Kashin "will be punished." Detectives told Kashin that they believed members of either Molodaya Gvardiya Edinoi Rossii or Nashi were involved in the attack against him, but no specific suspects have been identified.

"The only person who was not questioned--and who I personally consider the most probable mastermind of the attack on me--is Vasily Yakemenko, a person very close to [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin as well as to [Deputy Chief of the Presidential Staff] Vyacheskav Surkov," Kashin told CPJ. Yakemenko is the founder of Nashi and head of the Federal Youth Agency, a senior government position.

"I asked one of the investigators in my case why Yakemenko had not been questioned, to which she responded that there wasn't enough evidence to do that yet," Kashin told CPJ. "But I think that the investigation was instructed from the very beginning that Yakemenko was not to be touched. Consider that 10 days after the attack on me, Putin met with Yakemenko--thus demonstrating his high degree of protection of him."

Despite the initial progress, the investigation into the attack on Kashin began to unravel after the spring. First, some journalists' sources tried to sell them the theory that the assault was ordered by a jealous lover of Kashin's. No evidence was found to back up that theory and it was not published.

Then, most disturbingly, the case was suddenly transferred from Investigator Golkin to Investigator Nikolai Ushchapovsky. (Ushchapovsky had previously led a probe, still unsolved, into the 2003 mysterious death of Yuri Shchekochikhin.) The Investigative Committee claimed that the personnel change was due to Golkin's heavy workload.

Ushapovsky took over the case in early October. By the middle of that month, when Ushchapovsky had not initiated communication with Kashin, the journalist procured his phone number and called the investigator on his own initiative. "I introduced myself and asked for a meeting," Kashin told CPJ. "But Ushchapovsky said he had to first read my case and that, before he does that, he sees no sense in meeting with me."

Kashin is still waiting.

"I had hopes in the past year, but now I'm afraid," Kashin told CPJ. "[President] Medvedev has repeatedly said that the attack against me must be solved. But he will cease being the president [after March elections] and when he does, his pledges will lose strength. Which means my case will be buried..."

(Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova)

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