April 12, 2007
His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
Via Facsimile: 011 7 495 206 5137/206 6277
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls on you to act on your recent pledge to protect Russia’s press corps by ensuring that Moscow prosecutors thoroughly investigate the death of defense correspondent Ivan Safronov. There is sufficient basis to investigate Safronov’s death as murder, given its circumstances and the sensitivity of his reporting beat.
Safronov, 51, a former Russian Space Force colonel, was a respected military correspondent who covered defense, army and space issues for the independent business daily Kommersant. Just before his death, Safronov confirmed sensitive information about Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran through Belarus. He told Kommersant colleagues he had been “warned” not to publish some of the information.
On March 2, a doctor at a Moscow clinic gave Safronov good news–his ulcer treatment had positive results. Safronov went grocery shopping and took a trolley to go back home. Around 4 p.m., two university students living in a nearby apartment building heard a thud, saw Safronov on the ground, and a window open in an apartment building above him. Safronov’s groceries were on the landing between the fourth and the fifth floor of his apartment building. He died before helped arrived.
The Taganka prosecutor’s office in Moscow immediately said the death was a suicide. Several days later, prosecutors opened a criminal case for “incitement to suicide,” under Article 110 of Russia’s penal code. It suggests Safronov did not voluntarily commit suicide and the maximum penalty is five years in prison.
CPJ research shows that are many reasons why Safronov may have been killed based on information he had been investigating.
• In late February, soon before his death, Safronov had returned from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered the annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, a gathering of defense manufacturers. Colleagues said Safronov had called the newsroom from Abu Dhabi with information about the sale of Su-30 fighter jets and S-300V anti-aircraft ballistic missiles to Syria and Iran. The sale was channeled through Belarus to conceal their origin and to avoid Western criticism of Moscow for feeding “rogue” states defense technology. Safronov was going to write the story when he returned, but he never did.
• Three days before his death, Safronov privately told colleagues at a news conference he was attending that he had information regarding Russia’s sale of surface-to-air missile system Pantsir-S1, the fighter aircraft MiG-29, and the tactical missile Iskandar-E to Syria. Safronov said he had confirmed that the contract was signed. He said he had been warned not to publish the information because it could cause an international uproar. He was also told the Federal Security Services (FSB) would charge him with disclosing state secrets if he published it. Safronov never said who warned him.
• Safronov had been interrogated many times by the FSB previously for disclosing state secrets in his articles. However, he was never formally charged because each time he was able to prove he had only used public sources. In December 2006, Safronov angered authorities when he wrote about the third consecutive launch failure of the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile. As a result of his publications, “Safronov really became persona non grata in military circles,” the online newspaper Gazeta reported.
• According to relatives, friends, and colleagues, Safronov had no reason to commit suicide: He had no personal enemies, no debt, and no life-threatening disease. He has been married for a long time with two adult children, and he was expecting his first grandchild.
• The day he died, Safronov talked to colleagues and family on the phone and made plans with them for later that day and for the next week, reported Kommersant, which has launched its own investigation into Safronov’s death.
• Safronov went grocery shopping before allegedly killing himself. He did not leave a suicide note.
Your Excellency, the questions surrounding Ivan Safronov’s death–coupled with his sensitive journalistic beat at Kommersant, information he compiled during his trip to Abu Dhabi, and Russia’s record of impunity in journalist murders–warrant a murder investigation.
Speaking before journalists at your annual press conference in the Kremlin’s Round Hall on February 1, you said the issue of journalist persecution in Russia is “most pressing” and vowed that you “will do everything to protect the press corps.” CPJ, which promotes press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal, calls on you to act on your pledge. We urge you to ensure Moscow prosecutors pursue every lead into Ivan Safronov’s death, including murder for his work, and to conduct a thorough probe in a timely and transparent manner.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and await your response.