Moscow police say two Chechens suspected in Klebnikov murder

New York, September 28, 2004—Moscow police said today that they have arrested two Chechen men suspected in the July 9 murder of Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, according to local and international press reports.

Police Chief Vladimir Pronin said the men, arrested last night, had been wanted in connection with a kidnapping case. Three pistols were confiscated during the arrest, and preliminary findings indicated one might have been used in the Klebnikov slaying, Pronin told the Interfax news agency. The suspects denied involvement in the murder and said the pistol was given to them, a police source told the state news agency RIA-Novosti.

Klebnikov, 41, an American journalist of Russian descent, was shot nine times by at least one assassin in a passing car as he left his Moscow office the night of July 9.

Some analysts reacted to news of the arrests with skepticism.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based press freedom group Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said in a radio interview that authorities were pursuing a “farfetched Chechen trail.” He speculated that blaming Chechens could be an attempt by Moscow to win Western support for its tough course in Chechnya. “If Chechens killed a U.S. citizen, that may force the United States to change its view,” Panfilov said in a separate interview with The Associated Press.

The AP said Klebnikov’s brother, Michael, issued a statement from the family saying it would “wait to see the incontrovertible evidence that the individuals apprehended today in Moscow are indeed responsible for Paul’s murder. In any case, this would be only a first step to identifying, apprehending and convicting those responsible for ordering his assassination.”
The chief prosecutor in Moscow later rebuked Pronin, telling Interfax that he was not authorized to discuss the slaying and the comments could hinder the investigation.
An investigative reporter, Klebnikov had written a number of books and articles that angered his subjects. Among other topics, he wrote about organized crime in Chechnya, and the shadowy world of Russia’s business tycoons.

The arrest comes two days after the state-controlled television station NTV aired a documentary about imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggesting that Klebnikov’s murder may have been linked to two Kremlin opponents—Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev and media and oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky, The Moscow Times reported.

Klebnikov was the 11th journalist to be murdered in a contract-style slaying since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. No one has been brought to justice in any of the slayings.

Klebnikov launched Forbes Russia in April 2004, believing that reforms were propelling the country toward greater transparency in business and politics. In his first editorial, Klebnikov said Russian business had arrived at a “new, more civilized stage of development.”

In May, Forbes Russia published a list of Russia’s 100 wealthiest people and reported that Moscow had 33 billionaires, more than any other city in the world. Publication of the list focused attention on Russia’s billionaires, many of whom are trying to keep a low profile as Putin’s regime uses the courts, prosecutors, and security services to rein in oligarchs and strengthen the state’s economic role.

U.S.-based National Public Radio reported that some oligarchs threatened the editor, claiming their assets were inflated on the Forbes list.

Klebnikov had investigated other powerful people as well. In 1996 he profiled Boris Berezovsky, the media and oil tycoon who had close ties to the Kremlin during President Boris Yeltsin’s tenure. The Forbes profile suggested Berezovsky might have been involved in the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev, an allegation that prompted Berezovsky to sue Klebnikov and Forbes in the United Kingdom for libel. The suit was withdrawn after Forbes said it had no proof of Berezovsky’s involvement.

Klebnikov expanded his profile of Berezovsky into a book titled “Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism,” which he published in 2001.

Klebnikov’s second book was published in Russian. “Conversation with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam” was based on interviews with Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev and focused on organized crime in Chechnya. And Klebnikov had begun gathering material for a new book about the Listyev slaying, his publisher, Valery Streletsky, told the U.S.-based Baltimore Sun.