The July 9 slaying of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov in the capital, Moscow, is a grim reminder of the years-long pattern of deadly, unchecked violence against journalists in Russia that is damaging your nation’s international reputation and depriving your citizens of the independent reporting essential to democracy. Eleven journalists have been murdered in contract-style killings during your tenure–and four others have died as a result of other violent, work-related circumstances–yet no one has been brought to justice for these killings.
Nowhere is this climate of lawlessness and impunity more apparent than in the city of Togliatti, where the murders of two successive editors-in-chief of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye remain unredressed. Both editors were slain after the independent newspaper exposed controversial business deals linked to organized crime and government corruption.
Investigators and prosecutors in these cases have repeatedly disregarded pertinent evidence and witnesses, a pattern of neglect that raises doubts in the international community that your government is making good-faith efforts to solve the killings.
In search of information on these two cases, a CPJ delegation traveled to Togliatti in June to meet with the colleagues and families of the murdered editors, as well as with local officials investigating the crimes. Journalists at Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye are convinced that the murders of the two editors–Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov–came in retaliation for the newspaper’s investigative work. The newspaper staff and the editors’ families are very concerned about prosecutors’ handling of the Sidorov case and are deeply troubled by the complete lack of progress in the investigation of Ivanov’s murder.
Ivanov, 32, was shot eight times in the head at point-blank range while entering his car just outside his home at about 11 p.m. on April 29, 2002, according to local press reports. Eyewitnesses saw a 25- to 30-year-old man walk up to Ivanov’s car and shoot him, apparently using a pistol with a silencer, before fleeing the scene on foot, press reports said.
Ivanov also served as a deputy in the local Legislative Assembly, where he was dealing with politically and financially sensitive affairs, but his colleagues at Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye believe that the killing was connected to his investigative work at the newspaper.
On March 1, 2002, two months prior to his murder, for example, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye published a report on an investigation led by Ivanov on organized crime in Togliatti. The article identified gang leaders by name and discussed their ties with corrupt local businesses, according to the documentary film “The Russian Newspaper Murders,” which was broadcast on the U.S.-based Public Broadcasting Service. Family members told CPJ that Ivanov had received telephone threats prior to his murder.
Ivanov was working on another investigation at the time of his death, according to information uncovered by colleagues after the slaying of his successor, Aleksei Sidorov. That investigation, according to court testimony, could have implicated Togliatti prosecutors and police officers in possible crimes.
Prosecutors opened an investigation into the Ivanov murder and claimed that they were considering several possible motives, including retaliation for his journalism. Yet Ivanov’s family told CPJ that Samara Deputy Prosecutor General Yevgeny Novozhilov, who handles the daily work of the prosecutor’s office in Togliatti, was uncooperative and unwilling to discuss the inquiry when they met with him a year after Ivanov’s death, in April 2003.
Several months later, on the night of October 9, 2003, Sidorov was stabbed several times in the chest as he approached his apartment building. Initial eyewitness reports placed one assailant and a second person at the scene. The editor died in his wife’s arms after she heard his call for help and came to the building’s entrance. His family and Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye staff believe that Sidorov was killed because of his journalistic work, citing threats he had received prior to his death, as well as his supervision of the newspaper’s sensitive investigative projects.
Government officials initially agreed that Sidorov’s murder appeared to be a contract killing in retaliation for his work, but a week after the slaying, officials suddenly claimed it was a “street murder.” According to local press reports, prosecutor Novozhilov said that an intoxicated welder from one of the local factories, Yevgeny Maininger, 29, stumbled upon Sidorov that evening and killed him after a brief argument. Local police detained Maininger on October 12 and charged him with murder on October 21 after he allegedly confessed to the killing.
Interviews and research conducted by CPJ, however, support claims by Sidorov’s family and Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye staff that the murder was related to his journalism. Sidorov, who oversaw the staff’s investigative work, was once so concerned about his safety that he hired a bodyguard and moved away from Togliatti for several months in fall 2002. Sidorov also received a number of work-related telephone threats about three months prior to his murder.
Sidorov was personally investigating Ivanov’s unsolved murder, colleagues said. Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye reporter Oleg Novikov testified in court that Sidorov was preparing to publish the results of the investigation Ivanov was pursuing at the time of his death. The investigation, Novikov testified, focused on allegations that Togliatti prosecutors and police officers took property from Dmitry Ruzlyaev, a local boss in the automotive business who was murdered in 1998. The article was never published because Sidorov’s files on the investigation disappeared after he was murdered, said Karen Nersisian, a defense lawyer representing the Sidorov family.
Despite this evidence, prosecutors focused on Maininger in a trial that has been marred by investigative and procedural errors. Nersisian and Sidorov’s colleagues have pointed to a number of serious flaws in the prosecution’s claim that Maininger killed the editor because of a spontaneous argument. They include:
• Maininger said investigators pressured him to confess to the murder, according to his family and defense team. To support that confession, Maininger asked his wife, Nadezhda, to falsely testify that he was wearing clothes on the night of the murder that matched the description of the killer’s attire, she told the independent Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant. Maininger later withdrew the confession and said it was coerced, Kommersant reported.
• While Maininger identified the supposed site of the murder when authorities took him to the scene, Nersisian said forensic evidence points to a different spot.
• Eyewitnesses presented by the prosecution were uncertain whether Maininger was the murderer, according to local press reports. In addition, their accounts consistently pointed to a killer taller than Maininger.
• Maininger’s co-workers told Nersisian in an interview that police officers tried to pressure them to testify that they saw Maininger prepare the alleged murder weapon, an ice pick, the day before Sidorov’s murder.
• Prosecutors denied Nersisian access to forensic test results and a medical autopsy performed on Sidorov’s body.
Sidorov’s colleagues and Nersisian also reported disturbing incidents in which authorities resisted examining evidence that contradicted the prosecution, delayed proceedings without notice, and pressured at least one journalist. The incidents include:
• At least two witnesses who saw Maininger at a coffee shop at the time of the slaying, thus providing him an alibi, were not allowed to testify, according to local press reports and the film “The Russian Newspaper Murders.”
• Several witnesses saw the killer search Sidorov’s body, but they, too, were not allowed to testify. Nersisian said a colleague had handed documents and diskettes on the Ruzlyaev investigation to Sidorov when the editor left his office that night, but no diskettes or documents were recovered from the body.
• On July 9, Judge Andrei Kirillov of the Komsomolsky District Court postponed trial proceedings until September 13 without consulting the prosecution or the defense. The judge said the emergence of a new witness warranted the delay, but neither prosecution nor defense was aware of such a witness, according to Nersisian and a local press report.
• In at least one instance, a prosecutor pressured a journalist in an effort to influence coverage of the Sidorov trial. Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye correspondent Sergei Davydov told CPJ he was called into the prosecutor’s office on June 11 and told by Nikolai Shpakov, prosecutor for the Komsomolsky District, that he was “not writing correctly” in covering the trial. In a meeting with CPJ, Samara Deputy Prosecutor General Novozhilov said Davydov’s reporting “interferes with our judicial process” and said that Shpakov’s conversation with the reporter was appropriate.
The weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and efforts by the court to obstruct and delay the proceedings raise disturbing questions about the credibility of the judicial process.
We call for your direct and concerted intervention to bring the true killers in the Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye cases to justice. Specifically, we urge you to devote the full resources of your office to ensure thorough criminal investigations into these slayings; full and transparent legal proceedings; and regular and comprehensive communication by authorities to the families of the victims.
Devoting your government’s attention and resources to solving these cases would signal to the world that your administration is moving toward respect for the rule of law and the fundamental precepts of democracy.