A fighter regains his footing, but his voice is stilled. (CPJ/Nina Ognianova)
A fighter regains his footing, but his voice is stilled. (CPJ/Nina Ognianova)

Beketov back on his feet, and a long road awaits

Mikhail Beketov can walk now–using an artificial leg and propping himself on crutches. He’s moving around his house in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. It was here, in his front yard, where the newspaper editor was attacked two years and seven months ago. It was in this yard where assailants left him for dead. The fact that Beketov can stand on his own again is testament to the sheer strength of the man, whom friends describe as a born fighter. He could be obstinate, they say, and that’s why he would never turn away from what he believes in.

Like the preservation of the Khimki forest, a green zone stretching across 2,500 acres north of Moscow. A federal project with clear dividends for a Khimki administration headed by a powerful mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko, the new highway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg will devastate the forest.  President Dmitry Medvedev briefly suspended the road’s construction in August 2010, reacting to voluminous protests by environmental defenders. But now the project has been resumed. There is no Khimkinskaya Pravda–Beketov’s fiercely independent newspaper, which he had devoted himself to–to protest now. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used the occasion of meeting with French investors in Paris to reassure the road builder, the French construction group Vinci, that the highway would be completed, the English-language Moscow Times reported. Putin apologized to Vinci about the delay.

While Vinci got an apology, Beketov’s assailants are still at large. Last November, Russia’s top investigative official, Aleksandr Bastrykin, ordered the probe into the attack reopened; the case is now with the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for Moscow Region. But thus far detectives have reported no progress.

I asked Lyudmila Fedotova, head of the Foundation to Help Journalist Mikhail Beketov, to show me the spot Beketov was found lying after the attack. A metal fence shields the stone-paved front yard from the street. But not entirely so. There are several houses across the street, facing Beketov’s. Were all neighbors questioned? Didn’t anyone hear what was bound to be quite a commotion only yards away? Did detectives review video recordings from security cameras in the vicinity? These are questions the investigators have yet to answer.

After spending two years in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries and extensive treatment, Beketov is back home. Friends take care of him, and care he needs. When attackers struck to kill in November 2008, they broke Beketov’s skull, smashed the fingers of both hands, knocked out numerous teeth, and broke his legs (one leg had to be amputated). The head injuries were so extensive Beketov lost the ability to speak. Neurologists were able to partially restore speech with medication earlier this year, but the effect was only temporary. As before, Beketov is able to understand but unable to communicate in return.

He needs treatment at a specialized clinic. Through this blog, Beketov’s friends asked me to spread their appeal: They are ready to give access to Beketov’s detailed medical diagnosis to candidate clinics abroad that specialize in restoring speech after extensive trauma. Is there a clinic capable and willing to treat Beketov? Such treatment is crucial to his further recovery.

For now, the days pass slowly. Beketov has constant help from a live-in former colleague. Friends visit regularly. He plays chess, watches television, takes walks. He often consults his clock. “He lives by the minute,” a friend tells me, “and he hates to wait.” So do those who want justice. After almost three years, they are losing patience.

(Reporting from Khimki)