Prosecutors drop probe into stabbing death of journalist

New York, January 3, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned that the Belarusian prosecutor’s office has suspended an investigation of the murder of journalist Veronika Cherkasova. Local and international press reports said the authorities shelved the case on December 28 for lack of suspects. The authorities did not examine whether Cherkasova was stabbed to death in October 2004 because of her writing.

Initial investigations focused on her 16-year-old son, Anton Filimonov, as the prime suspect. On December 28, he was arrested on counterfeiting charges.

Cherkasova, 44, was killed in her Minsk apartment on October 20, 2004. She reported for the Minsk-based opposition weekly Solidarnost, where she covered social and cultural issues. However, she occasionally wrote about politically sensitive topics such as drug abuse and surveillance by the Belarusian Security Services (KGB), her colleagues told CPJ.

“We are appalled at the Belarusian prosecutors’ failure to investigate possible professional motives for Veronika Cherkasova’s murder,” CPJ’s Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We are also concerned for the safety of her son. We call on the authorities to reopen the case and pursue every lead, including Cherkasova’s journalism, to solve this terrible crime.”

Solidarnost editor Aleksandr Starikevich said he believed she was killed for her work, particularly her investigation of alleged arms sales by Belarus to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Associated Press said.

Local press reports said Filimonov was being held pending a trial for currency counterfeiting. The reports said prosecutors had again pressured him to confess to his mother’s killing. Prosecutors dropped Filimonov as their main suspect in June 2005 for lack of evidence, the reports said.

The Belarusian human rights organization Charter 97 said Filimonov and several friends were arrested for forging currency bills on a computer but only Filimonov was held. On December 28 and December 29, unidentified persons visited Filimonov at the detention center, asking him to sign a confession that he killed his mother, Charter 97 quoted Cherkasova’s stepfather, Vladimir Meleshko, as saying. “You are in our hands,” the visitors told Filimonov, according to Charter 97.