In Russia, skepticism greets prosecutors’ ruling in Safronov death

New York, September 12, 2007—Moscow prosecutors closed the criminal investigation into the March death of Kommersant defense correspondent Ivan Safronov because of “an absence of foul play,” the business daily reported today.

The Central Administrative District prosecutor concluded that Safronov took his own life “for subjective, private reasons,” Kommersant said. The prosecutor’s office disclosed few details as to the reason for its conclusion. The office informed the paper of the finding on Tuesday, Kommersant Deputy Editor Ilya Bulavinov told CPJ. Bulavinov expressed skepticism about the conclusion, saying investigators did not properly explore a potential link between Safronov’s sudden death and his sensitive reporting.

“Russian prosecutors cannot close the investigation into the mysterious death of Ivan Safronov without fully disclosing their findings,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Safronov’s reporting on highly sensitive subjects such as defense contracts embarrassed and angered powerful people in Russia. The authorities must show publicly that they exhausted all avenues of inquiry before ruling out journalism as the motive for Safronov’s death.”

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, died after plunging more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building on March 2. 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. On April 16, Safronov’s case was reassigned from the Taganka prosecutor’s office to the higher-ranking Central Administrative District—which essentially confirmed the initial finding.

Just days 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. While in Abu Dhabi, Kommersant reported, 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. He never wrote the piece, although Kommersant summarized the outlines of his reporting after his death.

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

A government-commissioned medical report showed no trace of alcohol or drugs in Safronov’s bloodstream, Kommersant reported today. His death, according to the report, was caused by injuries and bleeding sustained from falling from a significant height, the paper said.

CPJ undertook a recent research mission to Moscow to look into the case. Safronov, according to family, colleagues, and friends, had no obvious reason to take his own life. He was happily married, respected at work, expecting his first grandchild, and getting his son ready for college. Those who knew him described him as energetic and in good spirits at the time of his death.

In a March 6 article headlined “Ivan Safronov Was Killed,” Kommersant reported that Safronov took a sick day on the day of his death, saw a doctor for treatment of an ulcer, took a trolley home, and bought some oranges before arriving back at his building. The oranges were found scattered on the stairway between the building’s fourth and fifth floors. No suicide note was found.

In today’s edition, Kommersant’s Bulavinov said investigators did not adequately investigate a work-related motive. Kommersant quoted Bulavinov as saying that prosecutors had prejudged the case and investigators had averted their eyes to any work-related motives. For months, investigators did not question colleagues or review Safronov’s computer or work documents. 

In announcing the closure of the criminal investigation, prosecutors dismissed the notion that Safronov’s work could have played a role in his death. “In his professional activity, Ivan Safronov covered rather sensitive topics, but ones already covered by other information sources. With his publications, he hardly caused sufficient harm to anyone’s interests, including those of the government,” Kommersant quoted the prosecutor’s statement as saying.

In explaining their decision, investigators told Kommersant that a security videotape showed Safronov entered the apartment building by himself and that neighbors noticed no disturbance. Investigators provided few other details that led them to their conclusion of suicide.
Russia is the third deadliest country for journalists , according to CPJ research. 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.

Fourteen of those murders have occurred since 2000. Only one case had led to convictions.