Russian reporter’s death prompts questions among family, colleagues

New York, April 11, 2006—Family and colleagues of Russian journalist Vagif Kochetkov, a 31-year-old who died in January from injuries suffered in an attack the month before, are raising questions about the motive for the assault and local prosecutors’ conclusion that it stemmed from a robbery, according to local press reports.

Kochetkov, who died on January 8, was the Tula correspondent for the Moscow daily Trud and a columnist for the local newspaper Tulskii Molodoi Kommunar. He reported on politics and culture, and he undertook some investigative stories.

An unidentified assailant attacked Kochetkov late the night of December 27 as he was approaching his home in Tula, about 125 miles south of Moscow, according to local press reports. Neighbors found Kochetkov lying on the ground after the attack, but the journalist did not immediately seek medical care for a head injury.

Kochetkov was admitted to Vankinskya hospital on December 30, saying at the time that he did not get a good look at his attacker, the Moscow-based news Web site ANNews reported. He was released on January 3, but his condition deteriorated and he was re-admitted and underwent surgery two days later, according to local press reports.

The Tula Interior Ministry reported a string of similar attacks in the city and opened an investigation into the case that focused on robbery as the motive. Kochetkov’s colleagues said initially that they did not believe the attack was work-related.

On January 11, police announced they had charged an unidentified suspect with robbery and manslaughter, but did not provide additional information about the case, according to local press reports. By late March, press reports showed that journalists and Kochetkov’s relatives were concerned that Tula prosecutors had not named the suspect, described the murder weapon, or outlined the circumstances.

Journalists at Tulskii Molodoi Kommunar said in late March that Kochetkov had received telephone threats in retaliation for his reporting, the Moscow-based news Web site Newsinfo reported. Yuri Stroganov, head of political news at Trud, said about the same time that Kochetkov had criticized the aggressive business practices of a pharmaceutical company in June and later reported on the criminal activities of an organized crime group, the Moscow-based news Web site Press-Attache reported. Kochetkov’s last article, on December 12, described the suspicious death of a federal narcotics officer while he was being detained in a local prison.

It is not clear why colleagues did not immediately report the threats and Kochetkov’s recent work. Kochetkov’s relatives said they now believe their son’s death was work-related, Moskovski Komsomolets v Tule reported.

On April 3, Tula prosecutors announced they had completed their investigation and determined Kochetkov’s death to be the result of a robbery. That same day, prosecutors filed robbery and manslaughter charges against the suspect—now identified as a former convict named Yan Stakhanov—to the Proletarski district court. Stakhanov faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on both charges. No trial date has been set.