In summit, Obama should address Russian impunity

June 25, 2009

Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
, D.C. 20500

Via facsimile: +1 202.456.2461

Dear President Obama,

In advance of your July 6-8 summit in Moscow with President Dmitry Medvedev, we’d like to draw your attention to the pressing issue of impunity in violent crimes against journalists in Russia. We ask you to place this issue on the agenda for your talks. Seventeen journalists have been murdered for their work or have died under suspicious circumstances since 2000. In only one case have the killers been convicted. In every case, the masterminds remain unpunished.

Your meeting comes on the fifth anniversary of the murder of Paul Klebnikov, the founding editor of Forbes Russia and a U.S. journalist of Russian descent. He was gunned down outside his Moscow office on the night of July 9, 2004. Although this case has received a high level of public attention, justice has been elusive.

The investigation was promising in its initial stages: Authorities determined the killing was work-related, they arrested suspects, and they brought a case to trial. The case unraveled in court amid questionable judicial decisions. The judge closed the proceedings to the public for vaguely expressed national security reasons and then left the jury vulnerable to intimidation. The defendants–Kazbek Dukuzov, charged as the gunman, and Musa Vakhayev, charged as the getaway driver–were acquitted in May 2006.

In November 2006, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s verdict and ordered a retrial of the two men. By then, however, Dukuzov had vanished. In the following months, Moscow City Court officials first postponed the retrial and then sent the case back to the Prosecutor General’s Office for further investigation. Officials did not disclose the rationale for this pivotal decision, which effectively sent the case back to step one. Investigators have reported no recent developments.

Neither have authorities reported progress in apprehending the alleged mastermind, Chechen separatist leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev. Prosecutors have said Nukhayev ordered Klebnikov’s slaying because he was angered by the editor’s 2003 Russian-language book, Conversation With a Barbarian, which drew on interviews with the rebel leader. Authorities have offered no evidence to substantiate this claim.

Investigations into the 16 other journalist killings have been marred by secrecy, conflicts of interest, and undue influence from external political forces, CPJ research has found.

These victims represent the breadth of Russian journalism: They worked in large cities and small towns across Russia. They were veterans of international reputation and young reporters trying to examine injustices in their local communities. All shared one thing: They examined sensitive subjects that threatened powerful people in government, business, law enforcement, and criminal groups. (Details of the 16 cases are attached as an appendix to this letter.)

President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have pledged to enforce the rule of law by investigating crimes against the press. Nonetheless, attacks on journalists continue to occur with impunity. In the past year alone, CPJ has documented work-related violence against 19 journalists in various parts of the country.

This record of impunity is a matter of international importance. Deadly violence against journalists has led to vast self-censorship, leaving issues of global significance underreported or entirely uncovered. A closed society is not a full and reliable international partner in our information-driven world. Russia is an influential member in a number of international organizations, including those predicated on the right to life and free expression. When Russia does not uphold press freedom and human rights for its own people, it undermines them for all.

When you meet with President Medvedev in July, we ask that you remind him of the commitment he made upon taking office on May 7, 2008–to ensure that the lives and safety of all citizens are protected, to fight corruption, and to strengthen the rule of law. We ask you to engage President Medvedev in a dialogue and urge that his government demonstrate its commitment to reversing this very troubling record of impunity in attacks on the press.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.


Joel Simon
Executive Director



  • Vladimir Yatsina, 51, took a leave from his job as a photographer with the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS in the summer of 1999 to travel to the North Caucasus on a freelance assignment. He was kidnapped in the southern republic of Ingushetia by members of a Chechen-led criminal gang and was shot in the mountains of Chechnya the following February. According to family members and press reports, an ethnic Chechen who had been hired as Yatsina’s fixer instead handed him over to kidnappers. The fixer lived freely in Russia for two years after the killing before going to Sweden in 2002, according to Vyacheslav Izmailov, a veteran correspondent with the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. It was not until 2005 that authorities placed the fixer on Interpol’s international wanted list. He has not been prosecuted, nor have Yatsina’s killers.
  • Igor Domnikov, 42, a reporter and special-projects editor with Novaya Gazeta, was bludgeoned with a hammer in the entrance to his Moscow home in May 2000. He slipped into a coma and died on July 16 of that year. Before his death, Domnikov had written several articles criticizing the economic policies of the Lipetsk regional government. Five members of a criminal gang were convicted of the murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Authorities have yet to file charges against those accused of ordering the killing.
  • Eduard Markevich, 29, founder and editor of the independent weekly Novy Reft, was shot in the courtyard of his apartment building in the Ural Mountains town of Reftinsky on September 19, 2001. Markevich, who had been investigating a public employee’s use of government property for private gain, had received threats and had been previously attacked for his work. Authorities made initial progress in the case when they detained a suspect in a vehicle matching the description of the gunman’s car. But the case was transferred without explanation to another prosecutor’s office, the investigation came to a halt, and the suspect was released. No developments have been reported in the case.
  • Natalya Skryl, 29, a business reporter for the Rostov-on-Don newspaper Nashe Vremya, was walking home from a bus stop in her hometown of Taganrog, an industrial city on the Azov Sea, when at least one assailant struck her a dozen times with a pipe or similar object on March 8, 2002. She died in hospital the next day. The assailant did not take money or gold jewelry from the journalist; in fact, nothing appeared to have been stolen. Nonetheless, Taganrog investigators classified the case as a robbery and did not explore journalism as a motive. Skryl had written several articles on the struggle for control of a large steel-pipe manufacturer. In the seven years since Skryl’s killing, the case has been suspended and reopened several times without evident progress.
  • Valery Ivanov, 32, and Aleksei Sidorov, 31, consecutive editors of the independent newspaper Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye in the car-manufacturing city of Togliatti, had exposed organized crime activities and corruption in government. They were slain 18 months apart: Ivanov was gunned down on April 29, 2002, and Sidorov was fatally stabbed on October 9, 2003. Both attacks occurred outside their homes. Investigators asserted that a man who later died of a drug overdose had killed Ivanov, but no evidence has been disclosed to support the accusation. In the Sidorov case, a local welder was falsely accused of killing the editor; that man was acquitted at trial.
  • Yuri Shchekochikhin, 53, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, had meticulously investigated a high-level corruption scheme when he was felled by a mysterious illness in June 2003. The sickness caused Shchekochikhin’s organs to fail, one after another, and he died within weeks. Questionable steps followed. Hospital authorities declared Shchekochikhin’s records a “medical secret” and sealed them from the public, including the journalist’s family. A Moscow prosecutor then lost the records, according to the newspaper. Authorities finally concluded that no foul play was involved.
  • Maksim Maksimov, 41, a reporter with the St. Petersburg weekly Gorod, who was investigating alleged corruption in the local Interior Ministry branch, disappeared after going to meet a source on June 29, 2004. He was declared dead two years later. Witness accounts implicated Ministry officers in the disappearance, but St. Petersburg prosecutors have no taken no evident action against them. The investigation was suspended in 2008; the family and its lawyer have not been allowed to review the case file.
  • Pavel Makeev, 21, a cameraman for the television station Puls in the town of Azov, was struck and killed by a car while filming illegal drag racing on May 21, 2005. Evidence showed that the car dragged Makeev’s body 50 feet, and the driver did not apply the brakes. Authorities classified the case as a traffic accident without questioning witnesses. Makeev’s video camera–with footage of the illegal racing–was taken.
  • Magomedzagid Varisov, 54, and Telman Alishayev, 39, worked in the volatile southern republic of Dagestan. Varisov, a political analyst for Dagestan’s largest weekly, Novoye Delo, was shot and killed near his home in the regional capital, Makhachkala, on June 28, 2005. He had criticized people across the political spectrum–from government officials, to federal troops, to radical organizations. Alishayev, a reporter and host of a religious television program on the Makhachkala-based Islamic television station TV-Chirkei, covered social issues such as education, drug addiction, and the spread of HIV. He was gunned down near his home, on September 2, 2008. In each case, authorities said they identified suspects who were then killed in armed confrontations with police. No evidence has been disclosed to support those assertions, however, and the victims’ families have told CPJ they are deeply skeptical of the findings.
  • Vagif Kochetkov, 31, a political reporter for the Tula-based Molodoi Kommunar newspaper, had written critically of business practices and organized crime in his hometown. An attacker struck him on the head with a heavy object on December 27, 2005. He died 12 days later. Authorities classified the case as a robbery, although Kochetkov’s valuables–including a diamond ring–were left intact. A suspect was acquitted at trial. Investigators did not explore Kochetkov’s journalism as a possible murder motive and failed to question his colleagues in any depth.
  • Anna Politkovskaya, 48, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006. The internationally known journalist      had reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya and throughout the conflict-ridden North Caucasus. Three men accused of being accomplices to the murder were acquitted in February, although a retrial has been ordered. Neither the gunman nor the masterminds have been charged. The gunman fled Russia on a fraudulent passport, according to news reports.
  • Ivan Safronov, 51, a prominent military correspondent for the business daily Kommersant and a reserve colonel in the Russian Space Force, fell to his death from a staircase window in his Moscow apartment building on March 2, 2007. He had just returned from a business trip to the Middle East, where he was looking into purported sales of Russian defense technology to Iran and Syria. Three days before his death, Safronov told colleagues that he had been warned not to publish portions of the information, Kommersant reported. The journalist had also embarrassed defense officials two months earlier by reporting on the third consecutive test failure of the Bulava ballistic missile. Authorities classified the death as a suicide, yet Safronov left no note and, in the hours before his death, had made plans with family and friends and shopped for groceries. 
  • Magomed Yevloyev, 37, publisher of the independent news Web site Ingushetiya, who uncovered official corruption and human rights abuses in Ingushetia, was shot and killed in state custody on August 31, 2008. In an interview with CPJ two months before his killing, Yevloyev said Ingushetia authorities had filed more than a dozen lawsuits seeking to shut down his site. The day of the killing, Yevloyev was detained by an Interior Ministry unit at the airport in Magas, Ingushetia (without a valid arrest warrant, as a court later ruled). He did not resist and was placed in an Interior Ministry vehicle with three officers, witnesses told CPJ. Along the way, Yevloyev was shot in the head. Authorities claimed an officer’s gun went off accidentally. A negligent homicide charge has been filed against the officer–nephew of former Ingushetia Interior Minister Musa Medov–but the officer has left the region and has not returned for court proceedings. The Yevloyev family has called the trial a sham.
  • Anastasiya Baburova, 25, a freelance reporter for Novaya Gazeta, had covered the rise of race-motivated crimes and the activities of neo-Nazi groups in Russia. On January 19, 2009, a gunman shot her and prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in downtown Moscow, minutes after they emerged from a press conference in which the lawyer criticized the early release of a Russian army colonel convicted of killing a teenage      Chechen girl. Five months later, investigators have yet to report progress in the case.