Beketov’s untimely death, and Putin’s unfulfilled promise

Mikhail Beketov’s recovery, in photos by CPJ and news agencies.

Mikhail Beketov, the former crusading editor of the independent newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda in the Moscow suburb, Khimki, died this afternoon at a Moscow hospital. A choking episode during lunch led to heart failure, Elena Kostyuchenko, Beketov’s friend and a reporter for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ by phone from Moscow. Really, though, Beketov’s life was taken by the thugs who smashed his skull, broke his legs, pulverized his hands, and left him to die in the freezing cold nearly five years ago. He defied them, surviving that November 2008 night and valiantly rallying in the ensuing years, but the once robust and fearless editor was never the same.

“They killed him,” Kostyuchenko said, referring to the criminals who beat him in retaliation for his critical reporting on regional authorities and a prized highway project that Beketov said was needlessly endangering a local forest. As in most politically inspired attacks in Russia, the criminals were not arrested or punished.

The attack left Beketov in a coma for several months, and physicians had to remove part of his brain, and amputate a leg and some fingers. But he staged a remarkable recovery, and his friends, including many of us here at CPJ, visited and supported Mikhail. Although he had lost the ability to speak, Beketov could still understand, engage with his charming smile, and exercise his mind with games of chess. He had learned to walk with a prosthetic leg, and he was doing very well on his feet, Kostyuchenko told CPJ. Friends surrounded him with care.

Today’s hospital visit was supposed to be routine, Kostyuchenko said. But the terrible after-effects of the 2008 attack had a direct connection to his death. While Beketov was in a coma, surgeons inserted a tube during the tracheostomy that helped save his life. But the tube also left deep tracheal scars that today conspired with a piece of food to block the airflow to his lungs and lead to heart failure, said Kostyuchenko, an account that was cited in news reports as well. “Doctors were unable to bring him back this time,” she said.

CPJ joins Russian journalists in mourning the tragic death of Mikhail Beketov. We also insist that Russian authorities find and bring to justice the criminals who cut his life short at age 55. At a January 2012 journalism awards ceremony, Vladimir Putin personally promised Beketov, one of the awardees, that the stalled probe into the attack would move forward.

In memory of Beketov and the many other Russian journalists murdered with impunity, Putin must stand by his promise.