Bush urged to take up Klebnikov case

June 28, 2006

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Via Facsimile: 202-456-2461

Dear President Bush:

In advance of your July 14 meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Committee to Protect Journalists draws your attention to the acute problem of impunity in violent crimes against journalists in Russia.

In particular, we highlight the case of Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia and a U.S. journalist of Russian descent, who was gunned down outside his Moscow office on July 9, 2004, in retaliation for his work. Two years later, the gunmen and the plotters of this terrible crime remain at large. The Klebnikov case is among 12 contract-style murders of journalists in Russia during President Putin’s tenure. None of these murders has been solved.

We urge you to include the Klebnikov case on the agenda for your coming talks with President Putin. The problem of impunity is the most serious threat to press freedom in Russia today. Journalists fearing for their lives cannot do their jobs, and news coverage of important events is chilled as a result. We ask you to underline in your meeting with President Putin the importance of apprehending and prosecuting those responsible in the Klebnikov murder, as well as those responsible for the other unsolved journalist murders.

On May 5, a Moscow City Court jury acquitted Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev in the murder of Klebnikov after a four-month, closed-door trial. In addition to holding the trial out of public view, the judge imposed a gag order on all trial participants, including the 12-member jury, barring them from talking about the proceedings. Court officials said the proceedings were made secret because some evidence was considered classified and because they needed to guarantee the safety of jurors and other participants. Authorities turned down a motion by the Klebnikov family’s lawyers to close only portions of the trial during which confidential information was to be reviewed.

CPJ has found reasons to question the verdict. State prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin stated publicly that “serious violations” of criminal procedure led to the acquittal, but he did not elaborate. Another source familiar with the trial told CPJ that authorities failed to guarantee the safety or impartiality of jurors. Jurors were not sequestered and could be readily approached entering or exiting the courtroom. Judge Vladimir Usov and other court officials did not stop the defendants or some defense representatives from making threatening statements in court that could have affected the jury, a CPJ source said.

Procedural questions arise because Judge Usov left the courtroom three times after receiving–but before announcing–the jury’s verdict. His only explanation was that “there are a few things to clarify,” a source told CPJ. In each instance, our source said, jurors followed him outside the courtroom–beyond even the limited scrutiny afforded by this closed trial.

Richard Behar, an investigative journalist who directs Project Klebnikov, a global media alliance that is investigating the killing, reported in a June 5 article for Forbes that investigators had compiled compelling evidence against Dukuzov and Vakhayev. The evidence included mobile phone records that suggested Klebnikov was watched by the defendants for two weeks before he was murdered; fingerprints matching Vakhayev’s were found in a car that a witness identified as the vehicle from which the fatal shots were fired; and the testimony of an acquaintance of the defendants who recalled them talking around the time of the murder about being paid well for a “big job.”

Moscow City Court officials, whose actions in the trial raised many questions, are now effectively blocking the Klebnikov family’s appeal to Russia’s Supreme Court. The family, which supports the prosecution’s appeal, filed an appeal of its own on May 15. But the Moscow City Court has yet to provide the Klebnikovs or their representatives with access to the trial transcript needed to prepare a detailed appeal. Russia’s Law of Criminal Procedure requires that such access be given to the plaintiffs within three days; the Klebnikovs filed their request on May 10. Since the trial was sealed and audio and video recording in the court room was prohibited, the transcript is the only document detailing the proceeding.

The secretive nature and questionable conduct of the trial have led to confusion and bewilderment, a result that ill serves the Klebnikovs and the public. The Klebnikov case is closely watched throughout the world, and its disposition sends an important signal about Russia’s international standing. We ask you to engage President Putin in a dialogue that would result in an open and impartial proceeding that would demonstrate Russia’s commitment to reversing its record of impunity. Demonstrating such commitment would be timely on the eve of the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations, which is to be hosted by President Putin in St. Petersburg beginning on July 15.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your response.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director