Georgia: Italian radio reporter found dead near Tbilisi

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October 24, 2000

His Excellency Eduard Shevardnadze
President of Georgia

Via Fax: 011-995-32-99-74-75

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely disturbed by the death of Italian radio journalist Antonio Russo, whose body was found on October 16 outside the capital, Tbilisi. Because of the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding his death, Russo’s colleagues in Tbilisi fear the journalist may have been murdered in reprisal for his coverage of the conflict in neighboring Chechnya, according to local media reports.

No journalist is safe if such killings are allowed to go unpunished. For this reason, CPJ welcomes Your Excellency’s decision to launch an urgent investigation into Russo’s death. Hopefully, this will ensure that prompt action is taken to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Russo, 40, worked for the Italian station Radio Radicale, which is based in Rome and affiliated with the Transnational Radical Party. He was found dead on the side of a mountain road near the village of Ujarma, some 40 kilometers east of Tbilisi, according to local and international media reports.

Initially, investigators found no injuries or other traces of violence on Russo’s body. But an autopsy revealed that Russo had died from multiple broken ribs and lung injuries, inflicted by a blow to the chest from a dull object.

According to eyewitnesses, Russo left Tbilisi on Sunday, October 15, along with several other people who had come to his apartment. At this time, it is not yet clear whether the journalist left voluntarily or was abducted. And although Russo’s car is missing, it is also not clear whether the journalist left Tbilisi in his own vehicle or by some other conveyance.

Georgian forensic experts believe the journalist died at approximately two a.m. on the morning of October 16. His body was found some 14 hours later, at four p.m. Next to the body, the police recovered a rope that had evidently been taken from the journalist’s house and then used to tie him up.

After the body was discovered, the police and several of Russo’s friends went to his apartment, which had apparently been searched and looted. Russo’s laptop computer, mobile telephone, video camera, and three videotapes were missing.

Georgian authorities have not ruled out the theory that Russo was killed because of his journalism, and at least one official suggested that an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” played a role in his death. But officials have also speculated that he might have died as the result of a robbery or a random hit-and-run incident. Meanwhile, a United Nations official told CPJ that Russia recently made an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the Transnational Radical Party’s NGO status at the UN. As of today, the attackers remained unidentified.

As a foreign correspondent for Radio Radicale, Russo had previously covered Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Colombia, Bosnia, and most recently Kosovo. During his assignment in Tbilisi, he was constantly in touch with Chechen refugees living in the eastern part of Georgia. After Russian authorities denied him an entry visa to Chechnya, Russo entered the breakaway republic illegally on several occasions to interview Chechen military commanders and former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov. Apparently, Russo planned to return to Italy with video footage of Chechnya at the end of this month.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists devoted to defending press freedom around the world, CPJ calls on Your Excellency to ensure that Georgian authorities continue investigating the circumstances of Russo’s death, so that the perpetrators may be found and punished to the full extent of the law.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your comments.

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director