Russian investigators eye ’private life’ motive in Safronov probe

New York, May 21, 2007—Russian authorities are believed to be focusing on Kommersant reporter Ivan Safronov’s private life as the likely motive in his mysterious death in March, several Russian news outlets reported over the weekend. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities today to give thorough consideration to Safronov’s sensitive professional work as the Moscow daily’s military correspondent before ruling out a journalism-related motive.

The news agency Interfax, citing an unnamed investigator in the Moscow prosecutor’s office, reported on Saturday that authorities have found no evidence to link Safronov’s death with his recent investigation of Russian arms sales. Just days before falling from an upper-floor window in his Moscow apartment building, Safronov had uncovered sensitive information about the alleged arms sales, colleagues said. The Interfax story did not specifically address whether other aspects of Safronov’s coverage were still being probed.

“We’re troubled that Russian prosecutors may be prematurely dismissing Ivan Safronov’s work as a possible motive for his death, and we call on them to thoroughly investigate all aspects of his sensitive reporting,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

Moscow prosecutors initially said the death was a suicide but later opened a criminal investigation into what they called “incitement to suicide,” an article of the Russian penal code that is defined as provoking a suicide through threats or abusive treatment.

Safronov, 51, a former Russian Space Force colonel and a respected military correspondent who covered defense, army, and space issues for the independent business daily Kommersant, fell more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building on March 2.

He had just returned from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered the annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, a gathering of defense manufacturers. While in Abu Dhabi, he had obtained information about a purported Russian sale of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and Iran, a story he planned to finish when he returned.

Safronov had covered many other sensitive stories, however, and had been interrogated many times by the FSB. In December 2006, Safronov angered authorities when he wrote about the third consecutive launch failure of the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile.

Russia is the third deadliest country for journalists, according to a recent CPJ study. A total of 47 journalists have been killed in Russia for their work since 1992. Of those, 27 were murdered; 12 were killed in crossfire, and eight died while covering dangerous assignments.

CPJ keeps a separate list of journalists who have fallen victim to contract-style murders since 2000. The list includes 13 cases in which the evidence shows the killing was carried out by an assassin at the behest of one or more masterminds.