Flowers are placed at portraits of Aleksandr Rastorguyev, Kirill Radchenko, and Orkhan Dzhemal in the Russian Journalists Union building in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Mercenary leader’s death sparks hope for new leads in 3 Russian journalist murders

The August 2023 death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, made headlines around the world amid speculation that President Vladimir Putin was behind it. But to press freedom observers, the death was notable for another reason: It may have signaled a new era in long-stalled efforts for justice for three Russian journalists killed as they set out to investigate Wagner’s work in the Central African Republic in 2018.  

Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August 2023 after leading a failed mutiny against the Kremlin, which denies involvement. The mercenary leader’s death has led to a reshuffling of his vast business empire in Africa, as the Kremlin moves to take over some operations while others will likely remain under Wagner control. Amid these changes, there is a window of opportunity for those with information about the killings of Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko, and Aleksandr Rastorguyev to come forward as people formerly associated with Wagner feel freer to speak.

This image taken from video depicts the plane crash in which mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner Group, died northwest of Moscow on August 23, 2023. (AP Photo)

“[Since Prigozhin’s death], we have been receiving a lot of tips about the murders of Orkhan, Kirill and Aleksandr and have been checking every potential lead,” said a representative of the Dossier Center, a London-based nonprofit that has investigated the killings, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. The representative said that former Wagner mercenaries and others have approached the center, some asking for money or help with accessing visas in exchange for valuable information. The representative said that the center was in the process of vetting all leads and couldn’t comment further. 

Regardless of whether these leads pan out, the very idea of new information in the moribund case has given hope to the journalists’ families and colleagues. They are hopeful that concrete leads may crack it open and force CAR and Russian authorities to step up their purported investigations into the journalists’ mysterious killings, or even prompt an independent third-party probe. 

The final reporting trip 

When the three Russian journalists arrived in CAR on July 28, 2018, to investigate Wagner’s activities, they likely had no idea of the danger that lay ahead. Dzhemal, a renowned war correspondent, was the most experienced of the trio, having reported from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. Radchenko also reported from Syria while Rastorguyev had covered activism in Russia.

Russian officers from the Wagner Group provide security to Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera, in Bangui, on July 17, 2023. (Reuters/Leger Kokpakpa)

The three were excited to explore Wagner’s activities as a window into Russia’s growing influence in Africa. At the time, Prigozhin, an influential businessman, had not yet publicly admitted to founding Wagner, though his links to the company had been widely reported. Prigozhin’s close alignment with Putin made the trip even more enticing for the journalists. The businessman was known as “Putin’s chef” because his catering company – under U.S. sanction – was preferred by the Kremlin.  

The journalists pitched the project to The Investigations Management Centre (or TsUR, in Russian), an investigative outlet funded by exiled Russian dissident oligarch and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which agreed to fund the project. Khodorkovsky also funded the Dossier Center, the group investigating the killings.

The three journalists had been on the ground for just three days, during which they visited a former Berengo palace used as a military base where Russians were training soldiers, according to the BBC. They had also planned to go to Bambari to meet with a local contact. On July 30, they were driving north of the town of Sibut when unidentified attackers shot and killed them. One journalist was shot three times in the heart, raising speculation that it was a professional hit; another was beaten and possibly tortured, according to the Dossier Center representative. 

After the killings, Khodorkovsky vowed to find the killers. “I’ll make all efforts to establish those responsible,” he wrote on Facebook at the time, adding that “the best way to honor memory of the victims is to prove that their death was not in vain, to bring the investigation to the end. Determine who killed them and why.” The Dossier Center’s representative told CPJ this month that Khodorkovsky remains determined to fulfil his vow. 

Investigations stalled

More than five years later, neither CAR nor Russian authorities are investigating, according to Radchenko’s brother, Roman Radchenko. Along with their father Aleksandr Radchenko, Roman Radchenko has been in communication with various Russian authorities, including the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian ambassador to CAR, and the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main law enforcement agency in charge of investigations. But he says that these authorities stopped answering his calls or letters more than a year ago. 

After the murder, CAR authorities said that the journalists were killed during a robbery by almost a dozen Arabic-speaking men wearing turbans. Radchenko, the Dossier Center, and Africa experts have all questioned this version of events, which was quickly adopted by Russian officials. These skeptics note that the area where the journalists were killed is far from places controlled by the Arabic-speaking Seleka Muslim militia. 

CAR officials have told Russia there has been no “breakthrough or even progress in the investigation,” according to the Russian ambassador to CAR Aleksandr Bikantov’s July 2023 interview with Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. 

CPJ sent requests to CAR’s ministry of justice and the government via email and web portals but has not received any response. CPJ also called the Russian Investigative Committee, but nobody picked up the phone. 

“I’ve been so disappointed that I had to file multiple complaints with [Russian] courts about the lack of proper investigation by the Investigative Committee,” Roman Radchenko told CPJ on the phone from Moscow. “I am not that naïve to believe that the courts will take my side, I just know of no other way to get some updates [from the Investigative Committee].” 

The Radchenkos are determined to have those responsible for the journalists’ murders brought to justice. They spoke to many people involved in the investigation and shared their findings, including the Dossier Center’s investigation with the Investigative Committee, but said that that the authorities failed to follow up. 

What we know about the killings

The murder was likely a preemptive measure, the Dossier Center representative said, as the journalists “did not spend enough time to uncover anything about Prigozhin or Wagner.” The center’s investigation, published on the first anniversary of the killing in 2019, and its subsequent reporting, show that the journalists were targeted even before they got to CAR. “The prep work [to kill them] started as soon as the three journalists applied for and received visas,” the Dossier Center representative said. They also looked at metadata from the journalists’ phones as well as information from local phone companies and found evidence that the three were surveilled from the moment they landed in the country. 

Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin in April 2023. (Reuters/Yulia Morozova)

The investigation, which was conducted in part on the ground in CAR, also showed that the journalists’ movements were controlled and monitored by a shadowy fixer who communicated with them only via text. The center found that the trio’s driver, who survived, communicated with a local official around the time of the killings. The official in turn was part of a chain of communication that included a local Wagner leader and a Russian-appointed advisor to CAR’s president. Radchenko said he tried to get the Russian Investigative Committee to interview the Russians the driver was in touch with, but that the committee failed to do so. One of his many lawsuits alleges that the committee has been negligent in its investigation.

Investigations have been stymied by other factors. CNN journalists who went to CAR in 2019 to look into the killings were tracked by Russian operatives and smeared as CIA agents aimed at “denigrating Russia,” in a now defunct news outlet alleged to be funded by Prigozhin. A key Russian witness who arranged the trio’s trip died in January 2023. At least one other key witness from CAR, whose name Roman Radchenko could not reveal because of the non-disclosure agreement he was asked to sign by the Investigative Committee, disappeared two years ago. Even the journalists’ clothes are gone – burned in CAR

Theories abound

The journalists’ family and friends differ about who is responsible for the killings. Roman Radchenko blames Prigozhin as “the guys, especially Orkhan [Dzhemal], started digging the information about Wagner in Syria and Donbass [Ukraine’s east] where Wagner had already had operations.” 

Nadezhda Kevorkova, an independent journalist and Dzhemal’s friend, believes Prigozhin did not benefit from the journalists’ killings, as widespread international coverage of the incident attracted unwanted attention to Wagner’s activities in CAR. 

“Also, many people in the CAR were not unhappy about the activities of Wagner. There’s certain fatigue from France [as a former colonial power], and nobody else seemed to be interested in the country. When Russians came, many saw it as a new opportunity,” she told CPJ. 

She said she believes the order to kill Dzhemal and the two other journalists “came from the highest office” in Russia.

CPJ called the Kremlin’s press service about this allegation but nobody picked up the phone. 

Everyone interviewed by CPJ agrees that the Russian authorities’ official version of the events – that the murders were the result of a robbery — are not true. The Dossier Center’s representative and Kevorkova both pointed to the fact that the journalists’ money was untouched and that the fuel – the first target of robberies in the area — was left in the vehicle. 

In its report, the Dossier Center claimed that autopsies showed the killings “were deliberate and professionally executed” and “cannot be explained by a simple wish to take possession of the victims’ property.”

In 2018, Lobaye Invest, a company allegedly owned by Prigozhin, paid to transport three journalists’ bodies to Moscow, the BBC reported. In 2021, Prigozhin said he had written to the CAR Culture Ministry about his plan to erect a monument dedicated to the friendship between Russia and CAR on the site where the three journalists were killed.

Chance of an investigation

Calls for investigations into the killings have stalled over the years.

The Dossier Center’s representative said the group had contacted the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), a U.N. peacekeeping mission, multiple times to no avail.

Appeals by a group of U.S. senators for the U.N. to investigate the killings also have yielded little, with the office of Republican Senator Marco Rubio telling CPJ earlier this month that there had been no follow-up since a 2020 letter from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres saying MINUSCA was providing “all possible support” for the CAR probe that it said was underway at the time.

MINUSCA did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via the mission’s website.

The Dossier Center representative believes that Russia will never complete an investigation “as [has] happened with so many political killings. International bodies should get involved and there needs to be a different jurisdiction.”

“No investigation is ongoing. Neither Russia nor CAR are interested in conducting an investigation and finding the truth,” the Dossier Center representative said.

“We are confident that the investigation will be stalled and never completed in Russia. We are ready to collaborate with other parties interested in uncovering the truth, we’re ready to share our findings with them,” the Dossier Center’s representative told CPJ.

“The most important thing is that the families know who killed their loved ones and that they are punished. Despite the pain that will never end, justice will give them some solace.”