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In Russia, brazen murder of Chernovik founder is unsolved

Chernovik founder Gadzhimurad Kamalov was killed in December 2011. Investigators have failed to determine the identities of the assailants or the masterminds. (Reuters/Lekai Dmitri)

Gadzhimurad Kamalov, founder of the independent daily Chernovik, was murdered in Makhachkala, capital of Russia's southern republic of Dagestan, on December 15, 2011. The slaying was brazen, coming on the national Day of Remembrance for journalists killed in the course of their work. The late-evening assault took place outside Chernovik's newsroom, located on Makhachkala's Magomed Gadzhiev Street. Equipped with numerous security cameras, the street is a throughway for government motorcades, including that of the regional president. Nobody moves undetected there. But Kamalov's slaying is yet to be solved.

Investigators believe two guns were used in the killing, although it is unclear how many people were involved in the deadly assault. The identities of the assailants and masterminds have yet to be revealed.

What is clear is what investigators have failed to do.

Investigators have not found a weapon. They concluded that two guns were used after examining bullet casings collected at the murder scene, and bullets that Kamalov's family members handed to forensics experts after extracting them from his body during traditional ablution at a local mosque. No autopsy was conducted; Kamalov was buried on the day of his death per Muslim tradition.

Investigators failed to retrieve recordings made by the dozens of security cameras set up in multiple locations on Magomed Gadzhiev Street. Chernovik's journalists did this on their own initiative. The images were of poor quality, however, and investigators could not identify the license plates of the suspected getaway Lada sedan, regional police sources with access to the case file told CPJ.

Efforts to track the getaway route have also failed: Police checkpoints, set up immediately after the murder throughout Makhachkala, did not spot the Lada, and a traffic-control video-streaming system, called Safe City, was not functioning. Police sources who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity said they did track phone calls made by people they consider suspects in the killing. The calls, they said, indicated that the suspects began following Kamalov in late November 2011.

This was not an ordinary murder. Kamalov, the founder of an influential independent newspaper that dared to criticize powerful regional and federal security agencies, had considerable influence in Dagestan. His opinion mattered greatly in regional politics. Before he was shot, Kamalov put his newspaper's weight behind a favored candidate in the coming municipal elections in the Gunib district of Dagestan. His funeral turned into a spontaneous procession, several thousand strong; the crowds remained peaceful thanks to Kamalov's influential relatives and fellow villagers.

The federal Investigative Committee, headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin, has remained silent on the contracted slaying. Given the large public outcry, this silence has been odd.

Ali Kamalov, head of the Dagestan branch of Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) and Gadzhimurad's uncle, told CPJ that unsolved killings of journalists in the region--the group counts 16 in 15 years--demands action. "We wrote an open letter to Bastrykin, urging him to take all of these cases under his personal control and assign federal-level investigators to carry out the probe," Kamalov told CPJ. The letter was signed by 105 members of parliament. Ali Kamalov said family members of slain journalists met with the representatives of the Investigative Committee and the Interior Ministry in July 2012, laying out their views of the cases.

Gadzhimurad Kamalov's relatives and Chernovik staffers attended that meeting, and told the officials that they believed regional police were involved in at least some of the killings. Ali Kamalov said relatives demanded that Moscow investigators be put in charge of the cases to avoid conflicts of interest. Instead, Kamalov said, they have been fed unsupported assertions that guerrilla fighters and radical Islamists were behind the series of deadly attacks. The relatives have been denied access to the case files.

In the case of Chernovik's founder, his relatives and colleagues told CPJ that they believe that he was murdered in retaliation for his reporting on the municipal elections in Gunib. In articles published before his death, Kamalov called on district residents to vote against the candidate supported by most regional power brokers, a person he accused of corruption.

Although the possible motive seems clear to Kamalov's family, investigators have not done much to pursue it, the slain journalist's brother, Magdi Kamalov, told CPJ. "Although we personally delivered and passed the information on potential motive and masterminds in the murder to Bastrykin and Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia's interior minister, there were no active measures taken or results announced. I think that the major reason for such inaction is a potential involvement into my brother's murder of high-ranking police officials in Dagestan." Magdi Kamalov said that the family had requested that agents of the FSB, Russia's security service, be commissioned to work on the case alongside the regional investigators. But the request was denied, and the family has been kept in the dark about the investigation. "They don't even inform us of their decision to extend the probe, and this is a grave violation of the victims' rights," Kamalov said.

One lead that regional investigators have actively pursued, CPJ learned, is a much different one--that Nadira Isayeva, Chernovik's former chief editor and the 2010 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, was somehow involved in Kamalov's murder.

The lead, which Kamalov's colleagues and relatives call absurd, first surfaced two weeks after the murder. On January 1, 2012, a publication called "All truth about Gadzhimurad Kamalov's murder" was posted online by anonymous users. The material consisted of several audio files containing bits and pieces of phone conversations between Chernovik's current editor, Biyakay Magomedov, and Kamalov and Isayeva. The files also included conversations with Isayeva's husband, Abdulkhalim Abdulkerimov, who is imprisoned on a variety of charges from forgery to robbery. 

The files were edited to accuse Isayeva of hiring members of regional guerrilla groups to murder Kamalov. After the files were uploaded online, Chernovik staffers approached the investigators with their questions: Which IP address was used to publish the files? Which security service sanctioned and taped the journalists? Who published the recordings online?

"Investigators failed to answer any of these questions, even though it could have helped them identify the source of this false lead," Magomedov told CPJ.

At the time of Kamalov's murder, Isayeva was long gone from Chernovik's staff. She resigned in June 2011 and left Dagestan shortly after, first for Moscow then to attend a year-long professional development program in the United States. This did not stop investigators from showing up at her parents' house in January 2012 with a summons--one that was missing an important detail. "Neither I, nor a lawyer whom I had to hire shortly after that visit, have any idea about my status in the case," Isayeva told CPJ. "Am I a witness? Or do they see me as the primary suspect?" she asks. She and her lawyer tried to get in touch with the investigators to clarify this several times, Isayeva said. Her lawyer filed several requests asking investigators if they were interested in questioning her by phone or via Skype. After Isayeva arrived in the United States in February 2012, her lawyer suggested that Russian investigators ask their American counterparts to conduct the questioning.

"They should be interested in carrying out an objective probe into Kamalov's murder. As someone who worked with Chernovik's founder for more than six years, I could be quite a valuable witness in his murder case, and can tell them what I know," Isayeva told CPJ. She said her attempts to cooperate have been fruitless.


A postscript: Recent developments show authorities have not forgotten about Isayeva. She told CPJ that investigators in charge of Kamalov's murder recently visited her imprisoned husband. After they left, she said, Abdulkerimov was interrogated by the prison authorities in connection with the July 2011 murder of Garun Kurbanov, a regional administration official. One of the questions they asked Abdulkerimov was whether Isayeva visited him in jail before or after the official's murder. As in Kamalov's case, it appears that authorities are seeking to connect Kurbanov's killing to Isayeva. A month before Kurbanov was shot, Isayeva publicly disagreed with the official during a hearing on human rights in Dagestan. The incident was reported in the press following official's murder, and seems like the investigators consider it as another case against the journalist.

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