Suspect in Kochetkov murder acquitted in Tula

New York, April 8, 2008—A Russian district court judge on Monday acquitted a man accused in the killing of Vagif Kochetkov, Tula correspondent for the Moscow daily Trud and a columnist for the local newspaper Molodoi Kommunar, according to news reports and CPJ interviews.

Prosecutors had charged Yan Stakhanov, a local businessman, with robbery and assault and had sought a 14-year imprisonment. Judge Andrei Shmakov ruled that prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence and ordered Stakhanov’s release, the state broadcaster GTRK Tula reported.

Kochetkov, 31, died on January 8, 2006, from head injuries he received in an attack two weeks before in his native Tula, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Moscow. An assailant attacked Kochetkov late the night of December 27 as the journalist was approaching his home. He underwent brain surgery on January 5 and fell into a coma and died three days later. An autopsy showed Kochetkov had suffered a skull fracture, a concussion, multiple chest bruises, and other head injuries, according to press reports and CPJ interviews at the time. Kochetkov never identified his attackers.

“We are concerned that authorities have been unable to bring about justice in the killing of our colleague Vagif Kochetkov,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We urge Russian authorities to thoroughly re-examine this case and prosecute those responsible.”

The victim’s father, Yuri Kochetkov, told CPJ today that “prosecutors failed to do their work properly. … I think they were not interested in prosecuting [Stakhanov] and the whole investigation process is rather questionable.”

Kochetkov said he had several questions about the handling of the case. Prosecutors charged Stakhanov with robbery, for example, even though Vagif Kochetkov’s money and fur coat were found intact while work-related documents and an inexpensive cell phone were missing. Stakhanov initially confessed to the attack but later said that authorities coerced him, according to news reports.

According to CPJ research, Kochetkov had worked on sensitive issues prior to his murder. Just prior to the attack, Kochetkov wrote an article in Trud on the activities of a Tula drug-dealing group. The December 16 article was headlined, “Revenge of the Mafia?” In June 2005, Kochetkov criticized the aggressive business practices of a local pharmaceutical company in another article. Journalists at Molodoi Kommunar said in March 2006 that Kochetkov had received telephone threats in retaliation for his reporting, the Moscow news Web site Newsinfo reported.

CPJ recently launched a global campaign to combat impunity, focusing initially on Russia and the Philippines.