Beketov convicted of defamation, his assailants still at large

New York, November 10, 2010–A court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki today convicted Mikhail Beketov, the editor of the independent newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda, of criminally slandering Khimki’s mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko, in a 2007 television interview. Beketov, who is in a wheelchair and unable to speak two years after a near-lethal attack, was wheeled into the courtroom for today’s verdict.

Judge Arkady Khalatov convicted Beketov of defaming Strelchenko in a 2007 interview and ordered him to pay 5,000 rubles (about US$160) in damages to the mayor, Russian and international press reported. According to the independent news website Lenta, Khalatov suspended the payment of damages because the statute of limitations applied. Beketov’s lawyer told local reporters that he plans to file an appeal.

“It is sickening that Russia has convicted Mikhail Beketov while allowing the criminals who almost killed him two years ago walk free,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the Khimki appeals courts to overturn today’s shameful verdict against our colleague. We also call on Russian authorities to focus their efforts on arresting and prosecuting all perpetrators of the November 2008 attack on Beketov.”

Strelchenko filed a defamation complaint after Beketov, in an interview with Ren-TV, accused the mayor of setting his car on fire. The case was suspended after Beketov was attacked in 2008; Strelchenko renewed his proceedings in early October 2010.

Beketov has been at odds with the Khimki government for several years. A journalist and environmental campaigner, he fought the Strelchenko administration’s plans to build a highway through a Khimki forest. He also criticized Strelchenko for nepotism and corruption on the pages of Khimkinskaya Pravda. The arson attack and a separate 2007 case in which Beketov’s dog was killed were never properly investigated.

Two years ago this week, unknown assailants crushed Beketov’s skull, broke his legs, smashed both his hands, and left him for dead in the freezing November cold. Neighbors found him more than 24 hours later, according to doctors, lying in his front yard in Khimki. He underwent multiple surgeries, had a leg and several fingers amputated, lost the ability to speak, and is still recovering. His assailants were never found.

In September, Russia’s Investigative Committee–the agency tasked with investigating serious crimes–announced that the probe into the attack was “suspended for lack of suspects.”

Beketov traveled to his trial by ambulance and was wheeled into the courtroom. At the sole hearing Strelchenko attended, on Tuesday, the mayor said he was sorry for Beketov but felt compelled to proceed, The Associated Press reported.