CPJ urges Putin to revive probe into disappearance of journalist Maksim Maksimov

January 9, 2006

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Via Facsimile: 011 7 095 206 5137/206 6277

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the lack of progress in the investigation into the June 2004 disappearance of journalist Maksim Maksimov in St. Petersburg.

Maksimov, 41, an investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg weekly magazine Gorod, was last seen on June 29, 2004, when he went to meet with a source in the city’s downtown district, the business daily Kommersant reported.

A month later police found his car parked near a local hotel. Maksimov’s mobile phone without its SIM card resurfaced at a local flea market at about the same time, according to local press reports.

Initially, investigators and colleagues did not focus on Maksimov’s journalism as a reason for his disappearance. At the time, Maksimov was seeking to trade his apartment in downtown St. Petersburg for a bigger one. Colleagues believed that he might have fallen victim to the organized crime gangs that control the real estate market in St. Petersburg, the news Web site Gazeta.ru reported.

For an entire year after the disappearance, neither law enforcement nor prosecutors reported any development in the investigation. Then, in June 2005, several Russian newspapers reported on the detention of at least three police officers – all senior investigators in the corruption division of the Northwestern Federal District’s Interior Ministry. The three were said to be suspects in Maksimov’s disappearance and murder.

The initial report came from the news agency Interfax and cited an anonymous source in the Northwestern Federal District’s Prosecutor-General’s Office. The report said that investigators believed that Maksimov was murdered for his work as a journalist and that two majors and a lieutenant colonel were considered suspects.

The suspects, Kommersant said, were held on unrelated criminal charges of forgery and falsifying evidence. The English-language daily Moscow Times said that St. Petersburg police confirmed the Interfax report but refused to give further details.

Soon after those reports appeared, however, on June 30, 2005, the Northwestern Federal District’s Interior Ministry issued a statement denying the involvement of the three police investigators in Maksimov’s disappearance and murder. The Interior Ministry said it “considers inadmissible and premature the appearance of press reports, accusing [the investigators] of masterminding the murder of journalist Maksim Maksimov.” The Interior Ministry gave no information on how the investigation was developing. The statement generated no follow-up by the authorities.

In the absence of official information, speculation about what could have happened to Maksimov continued to circulate in the Russian press for another month before the case disappeared again.

Journalists at the St. Petersburg newspaper Smena, where Maksimov used to work before joining Gorod, said on June 27, 2005, they had learned from unnamed sources from the St. Petersburg branch of the Interior Ministry that Maksimov’s murder was a contract-style hit, organized by high-ranking investigators in retaliation for Maksimov’s investigation of corruption in the local Interior Ministry. The paper said that all the perpetrators – three masterminds and two executors – were in detention.

Kommersant carried a similar message the next day – the paper said investigators believed Maksimov was strangled to death a year earlier to prevent him from reporting on corruption in the St. Petersburg branch of the Interior Ministry. Several newspapers described in detail what they said happened to Maksimov the day he disappeared, and how he had been killed, but did not source their accounts or explain how they had received the information.

Another possible motive focused on Maksimov’s journalism investigation into the murders of several Russian businessmen and politicians, including Galina Starovoytova, a parliamentary deputy shot in her apartment building in 1998, local reports said.

Authorities have done nothing to shed light on any real progress in the investigation nor have they made public the names of anyone held in connection with the crime. The journalist’s body has not been found.

Rimma Maksimova, Maksim Maksimov’s mother, described her communication with prosecutors in charge of the investigation as “difficult.” Maksimova told CPJ that she had received no answer to queries about the status of the case which she sent to the Northwestern Federal District’s Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Northwestern Federal District’s Interior Ministry in St. Petersburg.

Your Excellency, we call upon you to ensure that all those responsible for the disappearance and probable death of our colleague Maksim Maksimov are brought to justice. We also urge the Northwestern Federal District’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to clarify the status of the case, issue an update on its progress, and ensure that any senior government officials suspected of involvement are aggressively investigated. Journalists are not able to report freely in a climate of fear and impunity.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director