CPJ concerned about criminal inquiry against a North Ossetian journalist

New York, October 8, 2004—Authorities in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia are pursuing a criminal investigation against Yuri Bagrov, a reporter covering the North Caucasus for The Associated Press. The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned the government probe may be motivated by Bagrov’s reporting on politically sensitive issues, including the war in Chechnya.

Bagrov, 28, faces charges of forging a document to receive a Russian passport. In an interview today with CPJ, Bagrov said the documents he submitted were legitimate and he believes the government probe comes in reprisal for his work.

The journalist is originally from Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, but moved to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz in 1992 where he applied for and received a Russian passport and Russian citizenship in 2003, according to local and international press reports.

“We are very disturbed that this case against Yuri Bagrov may be in retaliation for his journalistic work,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on President Vladimir Putin to ensure that authorities in North Ossetia return Bagrov’s passport while his case is pending, and allow him to continue working without fear of reprisal.”

FSB raid
Agents from the local branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) raided Bagrov’s apartment, his office, and his mother’s apartment in Vladikavkaz on August 25, according to local and international news reports.

FSB agents presented a court order authorizing them to search for weapons, ammunition, drugs, and forgery-related items. They confiscated Bagrov’s passport and other personal documents, personal and work computers, computer disks, film, tape recorder and tapes, and his wife’s diaries, according to local and international press reports.

Several unidentified men followed him for several days after the raid, Bagrov said in an interview with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

On October 5, a local prosecutor summoned his wife for questioning. Later that day, Bagrov learned that he had been charged on September 17 with knowingly using forged documents, Bagrov told CPJ.

Bagrov’s lawyer, Aleksandr Dzilikhov, said authorities committed procedural violations in the inquiry, according to a statement distributed today by the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Doubts about the case
Bagrov and some colleagues question the motive for the investigation. The investigation was launched at a politically sensitive time for the Kremlin, several days ahead of Chechnya’s August 29 presidential elections when Russian authorities were eager to hide voting irregularities. Because FSB agents had confiscated Bagrov’s passport in the August 25 raid, he was unable to travel to Chechnya to report on the elections.

Considerable government resources have been devoted to the case, Bagrov said. FSB Lt. Col. Sergei Leonidov, a member of the counter-intelligence department, led a team of 10 agents during the August 25 raid, Bagrov told CPJ. The charges were prepared by Aleksandr Panov, the republic’s deputy prosecutor general, and reviewed by senior investigative prosecutor Akhtemir Kabolov, he said.

Bagrov’s reporting on the war in Chechnya has earned him a reputation among journalists as one of the top local stringers working in the North Caucasus conflict zone.

Bagrov has reported for The Associated Press since 1999, writing numerous stories that included closely held casualty figures for Russian military and police forces in Chechnya. Such information sometimes differed from the official figures provided by Russian officials.

Bagrov is also known for investigative reporting, including a February 10 story on the radicalization of Chechen rebels and a May 24 story on a wave of mysterious abductions in the southern republic of Ingushetia.

“I felt an interest from the authorities after the Ingushetia article,” Bagrov told CPJ. “In June, a friend of mine who works for [a government agency] told me the FSB came to their office and collected all of the information on me.”

Bagrov has also reported for the Russian Service of the RFE/RL.