Suspect charged with threatening journalist is cleared

New York, March 5, 2003—A suspect accused of issuing death threats against Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent with the Moscow-based twice weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was cleared of the criminal charge against him yesterday. Politkovskaya is well known in Russia for her investigative reports on human rights abuses committed by the Russian military in Chechnya.

The prosecutor’s office in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk dropped the criminal charge against Sergei Lapin, a Russian officer nicknamed “Kadet,” citing evidence that another individual, who died in 2002, issued the threats and signed Lapin’s nickname to them.

Politkovskaya’s lawyer Stanislav Markelov plans to appeal the decision. “Of course we will protest this decision,” Markelov told CPJ. “It seems very strange that another individual threatened her [Politkovskaya] and signed his [Lapin’s] nickname to the letters,” he added.

Politkovskaya began receiving the threats via e-mail after Novaya Gazeta published her September 10, 2001, article, titled “The Disappeared People,” in which she reported that Lapin committed atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. She specifically cited his role in the disappearance of Zelimkhan Murdalov, a resident of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. The e-mails said that Lapin was coming to Moscow to avenge the article.

In October 2001, security guards were assigned to protect Politkovskaya, and she was instructed by Novaya Gazeta not to leave her home. Novaya Gazeta‘s senior staff, however, decided that these safety precautions were insufficient, and Politkovskaya fled to Austria. She returned to Moscow in December 2001.

In early 2002 Lapin was arrested in connection to the Murdalov case. However, on May 31, 2002, the Pyatigorsk City Court in southern Russia released him from temporary detention on the grounds that he did not pose a danger to society and could await his trial in his home city of Nizhnevartovsk. According to a letter from the Nizhnevartovsk prosecutor’s office published in the September 5, 2002, edition of Novaya Gazeta, Lapin was charged with issuing death threats against Politkovskaya in late July 2002, but remained free.

“Given the pattern of harassment against Anna Politkovskaya and the serious nature of threats against her, we are disappointed by yesterday’s decision and remain concerned about our colleague’s safety,” said Joel Simon, acting director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.