Son of slain journalist Veronika Cherkasova released on bail

New York, March 14, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release on bail of the 16-year-old son of murdered journalist Veronika Cherkasova. Anton Filimonov was freed Monday from the Minsk detention center where he had been held since December 27, local media reported.

Although he was formally charged with forging currency, Filimonov was pressured by investigators to “confess” to killing his mother, according to his grandparents.

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. 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 reported.

“We are relieved by Anton Filimonov’s release on bail but we deplore the apparent attempts by investigators to force him to confess to murdering his own mother,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Veronika Cherkasova’s colleagues clearly believe she was killed for her journalism. We call on the Belarusian authorities to concentrate their efforts on finding the real killers instead of harassing her family members.”

Filimonov’s grandmother Diana Cherkasova, and his grandfather Vladimir Meleshko, told CPJ that the teenager had also been urged to “confess” that he had witnessed Meleshko kill the journalist. Prosecutors had initially considered both Meleshko, who is Veronika Cherkasova’s stepfather, and Filimonov, suspects in the murder but did not pursue them for lack of evidence, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.

The grandparents said the authorities had sought a pretext to arrest Filimonov immediately after the murder. On February 2, 2005, investigators went to Filimonov’s Minsk school and tried to take him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation without the knowledge of his family. Between February and April 2005, Filimonov stayed in Moscow with his father, Dmitry Filimonov, to escape the pressure. Filimonov returned to Minsk after prosecutors said he was no longer a suspect, BAJ reported. But in December he was charged with currency forgery.

The grandparents said Filimonov had a chronic heart condition which had deteriorated in detention. He had also lost weight. They thanked all those who had lobbied for his release.
On February 24, the Minsk Prosecutor’s Office said it was reopening the investigation into Cherkasova’s murder, the news agency Interfax said. Prosecutors said the renewal “has nothing to do with the detention of Anton Filimonov” but they declined to say what had prompted the move.