In landmark case, Russia charges alleged mastermind in Domnikov murder

In an unprecedented move, investigators in Moscow officially filed charges today against Sergei Dorovskoi, a former deputy governor of Lipetsk region who is accused of being behind the murder of Igor Domnikov, according to Novaya Gazeta.

Dorovskoi has been charged with inciting a brutal attack on Domnikov, a journalist for the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta who died on July 16, 2000, two months after being beaten with a hammer outside his Moscow apartment building. Domnikov had written at least five critical reports about Dorovskoi and the region’s governor Oleg Korolyov in 1999 and 2000, according to CPJ research.

“It is the first time in Russian history that a mastermind in the journalist’s murder is going to be in the dock,” Sergey Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta‘s deputy editor, told CPJ. “There is usually a mastermind in crimes against journalists, but that person has never been identified or brought to justice in Russia in any of the journalists’ killings.”

He added that it was also the first time investigators had listed a chain of alleged accomplices, from those who carried out the attack, to the person who allegedly ordered it.

Russia has a poor record of impunity in the cases of murdered journalists. CPJ data shows that 23 journalists have been killed there for their work in the past 15 years but the murders of Novaya Gazeta journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasiya Baburova, and Domnikov are the only ones in which the killers and their accomplices have been brought to justice. CPJ research has found that when the killers of journalists avoid justice, levels of intimidation and violence against the press increases and journalists are forced to flee or turn to self-censorship.

In a statement released by Russia’s Investigative Committee–the federal agency tasked with investigating serious crimes– authorities alleged that Dorovskoi “convinced his [now imprisoned] friend Pavel Sopot to attack Novaya Gazeta‘s journalist Igor Domnikov with the goal of inflicting grave harm to his health.” The investigators said in a statement that a series of articles Domnikov wrote about Dorovskoi and his work were the motive for the attack.

According to case materials made available to Novaya Gazeta, Dorovskoi is accused of asking his business partner Sopot to “take care” of Domnikov after the journalist wrote articles accusing the Lipetsk government of nepotism, corruption, and an inability to carry out effective anti-crime and agricultural policies in the region. Sopot passed Dorovskoi’s “request” to Eduard Tagiryanov, the leader of a criminal group, according to the case materials.

Tagiryanov and his gang members Sergei Babkov, Albert Khuzin, Nikolai Kazakov, and Gennady Bezuglov were convicted of a series of crimes, including Domnikov’s murder, and sentenced to lengthy jail terms in August 2007, according to CPJ research.

Six years later, in May 2013, authorities arrested Sopot on charges similar to those Dorovskoi is currently facing. In December 2013, a district court in Moscow convicted the businessman of intentional infliction of a grave injury, and sentenced him to seven years in a high-security prison colony, local press reported.

According to Novaya Gazeta, Dorovskoi has been under a travel ban since he was questioned by authorities on January 30. The paper said he has started to read through documents in the criminal case. When he signs a form saying he has read the documents, the case will be sent to the prosecutor’s office for the charges to be approved. The charges against him include instigating the crime and intentional infliction of grave injuries that resulted in the death of a person, Marina Andreyeva, a lawyer for Domnikov’s widow, Margarita, told Novaya Gazeta.

Dorovskoi refused a request from the paper for comment on the charges.

CPJ repeatedly called on Russian authorities to further investigate the murder of Domnikov, as well as the cases of other killed journalists. But the investigation into the alleged masterminds and organizers was not smooth. Even though, according to case materials seen by CPJ and reports by Novaya Gazeta, investigators were tipped off about Dorovkoi and Sopot’s alleged roles in the killing soon after Domnikov’s death, the official investigation was repeatedly held up, Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta‘s editor-in-chief, told CPJ.

“Everything drastically changed after I met with [then] President Dmitry Medvedev,” Muratov said. He told CPJ the meeting took place shortly after the murder of another of the paper’s reporters, Baburova, who was shot dead in Moscow in January 2009. “It was then that law enforcement agencies were ordered to intensify their work in investigating journalist murders,” Muratov told CPJ.

According to Muratov, Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee was ordered by Medvedev to open a case against Sopot. Bastrykin’s supervision of the case, according to Muratov, helped move it forward despite what he described as the halting characteristic of Russia’s justice system. “We need to honor the positive role the Investigative Committee played in this case,” said Muratov.

According to Novaya Gazeta, it was Bastrykin’s involvement into the case that made it possible to transfer the investigation into Dorovskoi from the Interior Ministry to the Investigative Committee’s Moscow department, which specializes in high-profile crimes. The department’s head, Aleksei Dolginov, and investigator Ivan Shcherbakov, who successfully carried out the investigation against Sopot, also led the investigation into Dorovskoi.

The next challenge in the case will be ensuring that a trial and, if Dorovskoi is found guilty, any appeal against a verdict, is heard before May 12. Under article 78 of Russia’s criminal code, the statute of limitations for a crime such as the attack on Domnikov expires 15 years after it was committed.

“In the current conditions all we have left is only to hope that both prosecutors and the court would act swiftly when it comes to their review of the case. And that at least the lower court would be able to declare Dorovskoi guilty,” Domnikov’s widow told CPJ. “It is very important for my family to be able to draw a line in this case, and prosecute those responsible in my husband’s death. This is important for the families of all journalists murdered in Russia.”

[Reporting from Moscow]

[Translated from Russian by Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Research Associate.]