Shchekochikhin, 53, then deputy editor of the independent Moscow twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta, died 12 days after being hospitalized in a Moscow clinic with what doctors said was an acute allergic reaction, according to CPJ interviews and multiple press reports.
Shchekochikhin’s relatives and colleagues believe the journalist was poisoned to prevent him from further uncovering the truth about a high-level corruption case involving officials from the Federal Security Services (FSB) and the Prosecutor General’s Office. Based on the circumstances and secrecy surrounding Shchekochikhin’s death, and the dangerous subject he was investigating at the time, CPJ also believes there is sufficient reason for launching a murder probe. The Prosecutor General’s Office has repeatedly denied Novaya Gazeta‘s requests to open a murder investigation into Shchekochikhin’s death, citing lack of foul play evidence.
Shchekochikhin worked for Novaya Gazeta since 1996, covering dangerous assignments such as the Chechen conflict, high-powered corruption, arms trade, and organized crime. From 2001 until his sudden death in 2003, he had published a series of detailed investigative reports on a smuggling and corruption case that involved a Moscow furniture store known as Tri Kita (Three Whales). As a member of Russia’s parliament, Shchekochikhin interviewed officials and gained access to documents related to the case.
While the Tri Kita case seemed like a regular business fraud case- the store had smuggled European furniture without paying taxes and customs fees-it involved high-ranking FSB officials who were found to have used the furniture business to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through the Bank of New York in the late ’90s.
In a February 18, 2002, lengthy article for Novaya Gazeta, Shchekochikhin revealed evidence that the Prosecutor General’s Office had received US$2 million in bribes in order to stop a Tri Kita corruption investigation.
Following its publication, Shchekochikhin received threats but continued investigating. In March 2002, as deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Security, he helped launch a parliamentary probe into the Tri Kita case. The probe was rejected by then Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov who refused to re-open the Tri Kita case, citing lack of evidence of criminal activity.
In April 2002 Shchekochikhin wrote President Vladimir Putin to request he take the case under his personal control. President Putin responded positively, but as of June 2003 the case had gone nowhere. On June 2, 2003, Shchekochikhin published another detailed article on the Tri Kita affair-his last one. Exactly a month after the material appeared in Novaya Gazeta, Shchekochikhin was dead.
The June 2 piece criticized the corruption in Russia’s law enforcement. The piece followed up the May 27, 2003, assassination of a key witness in the Tri Kita case. The witness, Sergei Pereverzev, then president of Russia’s Furniture Business Association and a former navy captain, had received threats ahead of his court testimony and had publicly said he feared for his life, Shcheckochikhin wrote. On May 14, Pereverzev was injured in a car crash and taken to a Moscow military hospital. Thirteen days later, he was assassinated by a gunman who had somehow managed to penetrate the heavily guarded neurosurgical ward.
Exactly one month after the piece was published, Shchekochikhin was dead-victim of an “unknown allergen” that caused organs failure.
On June 17, 2003, while on a business trip in the city of Ryazan, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south-east of Moscow, Shchekochikhin suddenly felt sick with flu-like symptoms. He returned to Moscow that day with a fever, sore throat, body aches, and a burning sensation all over his skin, Novaya Gazeta reported. The next day, a doctor diagnosed him with an acute respiratory viral infection. But Shchekochikhin’s health rapidly deteriorated in the next few days and he was hospitalized on June 21. In the next 12 days, the journalist’s organs failed one by one-his skin literally peeled off his body; he lost all of his hair; his lungs, liver, kidneys, and, finally, his brain stopped functioning.
Doctors said Shchekochikhin’s symptoms were consistent with the Lyell’s Syndrome-a severe allergic reaction to medications or infections, Novaya Gazeta said. But the allergen that caused the reaction was never identified. Moreover, Shchekochikhin’s clinical test results were classified as “medical secret.” Moscow Central Clinical Hospital authorities have refused family and colleagues access to those.
Without clinical test results, the Prosecutor General’s Office says there is no evidence of foul play and refuses to open a murder case into Shchekochikhin’s death. Medical authorities, in turn, say they can only grant access to Shchekochikhin’s file if prosecutors need to use it as evidence in a criminal investigation, according to a Novaya Gazeta article from January 15, 2007.
A month before his death, Shchekochikhin had met with officials from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and had obtained an American visa. He was to travel to the United States to discuss the Bank of New York, money-laundering, connection in the Tri Kita case, according to local and international press reports. He never made it to the States.