Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
In August 2007, five members of a notorious criminal gang were convicted of murdering Igor Domnikov, a reporter and special-projects editor with the independent, Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. They were sentenced to prison terms varying from 18 years to life for the Domnikov slaying and numerous other crimes. The convictions are the only ones obtained in the work-related murder of a journalist in Russia since 2000, according to CPJ research.
The verdicts followed years of work by Domnikov’s colleagues, who meticulously investigated the murder and doggedly lobbied for prosecution of the suspects. Novaya Gazeta staffers and Domnikov’s representatives talked to witnesses, police, and suspects to advance the investigation, digging out information and following the trail left by Domnikov’s articles. Though satisfied that the killers are behind bars, these colleagues are now pushing for the prosecution of those alleged to have ordered the murder of Domnikov in May 2000. If successful, the newspaper would help establish an important precedent in fighting impunity in journalist murders in Russia—by bringing both assassins and masterminds to justice.
Although Novaya Gazeta is known for hard-nosed investigative reporting, Domnikov, 42, built his reputation on the cutting wit and acerbic tone that he brought to profiles and features. “His articles were spirited and spun with talent,” a colleague, Vyacheslav Izmailov, said. “Tired of all that criminality, Novaya’s readers would allow themselves to catch their breath and wind down with Igor’s publications.”
In the months before his death, Domnikov took special interest in the Lipetsk regional administration in western Russia. In 1999 and 2000, he wrote five first-person pieces highly critical of Gov. Oleg Korolyov and his finance deputy, Sergei Dorovskoi. He accused the regional government of driving farmers into bankruptcy by not stimulating the agricultural sector; engaging in nepotism; failing to control violent crime; and allowing the population to wallow in poverty while top officials drew high salaries.
In one article, Domnikov used his sardonic style as a rapier against Dorovskoi, accusing the deputy of cozying up to Lipetsk businesses and using his office to benefit family and friends. Domnikov ended his piece by calling for an official investigation into the deputy’s actions.
Sergei Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta deputy editor, said that the content of that and other articles probably irritated regional officials, but it was Domnikov’s acid style that really offended them. Domnikov, for instance, mocked the deputy governor for authorizing ice cream stand sales without the use of cash registers. “Even those who don’t know a lot about trade in Russia will raise their eyebrows, unbutton the top of their shirts, and say after a moment of silence, ‘Wow, such a daring guy! I bet you he will be the boss in prison.’”
So insulted was Dorovskoi, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing its own research and investigators’ records, that he
allegedly enlisted a business associate, Pavel Sopot, to bring Domnikov back to
Lipetsk so they could talk. The conversation between Sopot and Dorovskoi took
place in April 2000, a month before the attack, according to Novaya Gazeta’s Izmailov, who
interviewed Sopot. “Civilized persons seek redress for their hurt honor and
dignity by filing a defamation claim in court or writing to the prosecutor,”
Izmailov said in a July 14, 2005, Novaya Gazeta article. “But Dorovskoi
chose a different approach.”
Sopot, Novaya Gazeta said, was a longtime friend and a former business partner of Eduard Tagiryanov, the now-imprisoned head of Tagiryanovskiye—a well-organized, heavily armed, and highly efficient criminal group blamed for more than 20 murders, eight kidnappings, and a number of other crimes across Russia. Tagiryanovskiye were based in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny in the west-central republic of Tatarstan. Sopot used to live in Naberezhnye Chelny, and, though he had moved to Moscow several years earlier, retained his ties with Tagiryanov, Novaya Gazeta said. “Did the sole fact that [Sopot] lived in Moscow prompt Dorovskoi to approach him with this request (or order?) or did Dorovskoi know of Sopot’s, let’s say, special connections?” Izmailov wrote.
Sopot told Izmailov—in a tape-recorded conversation—that two weeks after his April 2000 visit with Dorovskoi, he met Tagiryanov at a Moscow restaurant and asked him for advice on how to handle journalists. Tagiryanov’s gang, as it turned out, did more than give advice.
Whether or not events went exactly as Novaya Gazeta described, what happened next is beyond dispute.
On May 12, 2000, around 8 p.m., at least one assailant attacked Domnikov in the entrance of his Moscow apartment building, bashing him on the head with a hammer. The bloodied weapon, wrapped in a cloth, was later found near the crime scene, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing forensic records. A neighbor found Domnikov bleeding and barely conscious and called an ambulance. The journalist was hospitalized and underwent surgery, but he fell into a two-month-long coma and died on July 16 of head injuries. He never regained consciousness.
More than six years and 124 volumes of investigative material later, the trial of 16 Tagiryanovskiye started in Supreme Court in Kazan, the regional capital of Tatarstan. Among the 23 murders for which the gang members were charged was that of Igor Domnikov. In an article published September 7, 2006, three days after proceedings opened, Novaya Gazeta thanked the investigators, prosecutors, and police officers who had worked on the case. Noting that it “often rebukes our law enforcement agencies for their shiftlessness and corruptibility,” the paper said the prosecution was a “significant achievement” by “wonderful professionals” who had risked their lives in pursuit of justice.
A year later, on August 26, 2007, Judge Ildus Gataulin convicted five defendants in the Domnikov murder and several other crimes, sentencing each to a lengthy prison term. (The 11 other defendants were also convicted and jailed for crimes that included murder, kidnapping, extortion, and robbery.) Albert Khuzin, charged with striking Domnikov with a hammer, received 25 years behind bars. Gennady Bezuglov, accused of planning the logistics of the crime, got 18 years. Gang leader Eduard Tagiryanov was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killing and other crimes. Two other Tagiryanovskiye—Sergei Babkov and Nikolai Kazakov—were convicted of conducting surveillance of Domnikov before the attack. Babkov was sentenced to life and Kazakov to 19 years. All are serving their terms in a high-security prison colony, according to press reports.
So what made this case different from so many others in which the prosecution failed? For one, the Domnikov killing was part of a much larger, years-long crime spree committed by one of the bloodiest organized crime groups in Russia. Across the law enforcement bureaucracy, there was a strong commitment to move aggressively against the group. But Novaya Gazeta, with the help of press freedom groups, also worked long and hard to keep the case in the spotlight. Karen Nersisian, a former lawyer for the Domnikov family, said public awareness remains a powerful tool in the fight against impunity.
Prosecutors and investigators at both regional and national levels rebuffed each request, Sokolov told CPJ.
But persistence finally yielded some results. On April 17, 2009, almost nine years after Domnikov’s death, Novaya Gazeta received word from the Investigative Committee in the Central Federal District that it had opened a criminal inquiry into Sopot at the direction of top Investigative Committee officials. The new probe does not include Dorovskoi, who left politics to run a meat-processing plant and several other businesses in Lipetsk. The Investigative Committee did not respond to CPJ’s written request for comment on its decision.
In the interview with Novaya Gazeta, published September 7, 2006, Sopot said he did not believe his conversation with the gang leader would result in Domnikov’s killing. He told the paper: “If I said something about you to someone and then something happened to you—would that really be my fault?” Dorovskoi has not publicly addressed questions about the case. CPJ attempted to contact him though his meat-processing business but did not receive a reply. Tagiryanov, the gang leader, did not implicate either man in the slaying, said Nersisian, lawyer for the journalist’s family.
The decision to investigate Sopot came four days after President Dmitry Medvedev met with Novaya Gazeta Editor Dmitry Muratov and gave the newspaper an exclusive interview. Presidential press secretary Natalia Timakova described Medvedev’s gesture as a way of expressing “moral support” for the publication.
Gazeta staffers remain skeptical. “I would not start talking about
any positive results yet,” Sokolov told CPJ. “A criminal case can be closed
just as easily as it was opened.”
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