Anatomy of Injustice Chapter 5. No Foul Play: Brushing Aside Suspicious Deaths

The two victims were energetic journalists, expert in their fields, fair in their reporting. They died in suspicious circumstances that have not been fully investigated.

Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia


What does the sudden, mysterious illness that killed investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin have in common with the purported suicide of defense correspondent Ivan Safronov four years later?

A lot, as it turns out. Both deaths occurred as the reporters were covering sensitive issues with potentially significant repercussions for authorities; both reporters’ lives were cut short under circumstances that were not fully explained or investigated. Evidence was lost, deliberately concealed, or ignored; those who wanted to find the truth—including the colleagues and relatives of the deceased—were denied access to investigative records.

SIDEBAR: When Everything
is ‘Top Secret’

Was Shchekochikhin, as authorities concluded, really the victim of a rare, lethal condition caused by medication? Did Safronov indeed jump from a window in his apartment building just after grocery-shopping and making plans with his family?

Although authorities say there is no evidence of foul play in either case, colleagues and relatives of Shchekochikhin and Safronov believe each was killed for his investigative journalism.

Shchekochikhin, 53, deputy editor of the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was in the midst of a major investigation. From 2001 until his death in 2003, he was uncovering, layer by layer, an intricate corruption case revolving around a Moscow furniture company, Liga Mars, and its two stores, Grand and Tri Kita. A member of the State Duma, Shchekochikhin used his position to gain access to official sources and sensitive documents related to the case. He had the inside track, the skills, and the guts to tackle the investigation.

On its face, the case looked similar to many others in Russia: The company was accused of smuggling furniture to avoid customs fees. What made the case extraordinary, though, was its wide-ranging nature and indications that it reached high into the government. In his reporting, Shchekochikhin accused Liga Mars of engaging in money laundering and oil and arms smuggling. (The government’s problem-filled prosecution is still pending.)

In an article published on February 18, 2002, Shchekochikhin accused the Prosecutor General’s Office, the country’s top law enforcement office, of receiving US$2 million in bribes to halt its investigation. He cited a transcript of a wiretapped phone conversation in which a furniture company principal and an unidentified party were said to be plotting reprisals against an MVD investigator trying to expose the scheme. After the story’s publication, Shchekochikhin started receiving death threats by telephone. Unfazed, he continued digging.

Over the next two years, Shchekochikhin wrote several stories that sought to link the corruption to international players that included German, Italian, and U.S. concerns, and the main Russian arms exporter, Rosoboroneksport. As he followed the trail, Shchekochikhin criticized Russian prosecutors for what he saw as a pattern of deliberately ignoring evidence and failing to cooperate with international counterparts.

In his last article on the issue, published June 2, 2003, Shchekochikhin covered the gangland-style assassination in a heavily guarded Moscow military hospital of a key witness in the case, and he exposed graphic threats that had been mailed to the presiding judge. By this time, his frustration at the government’s inaction was coming through in his copy: “Do not tell me fairy tales about the independence of judges! … Until we have a fair trial in this case, files will be destroyed, witnesses intimidated or murdered, and as for investigators—they will either be [wrongfully] convicted or will leave, upset in their efforts to break the wall.”

A month after the piece ran, Shchekochikhin was dead—the victim of an unidentified substance that had caused his body to shut down in a matter of days.

On June 17, 2003, while on a brief business trip to a suburb southeast of Moscow, Shchekochikhin fell ill with flu-like symptoms, according to editors at Novaya Gazeta. The next day, a doctor visited him at home in Moscow, diagnosed a respiratory infection, and directed him to take over-the-counter medications. Shchekochikhin’s health rapidly deteriorated in the next few days, and he was admitted to Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital on June 21. In the next 12 days, the editors said, Shchekochikhin’s skin literally peeled off his body, he lost all of his hair, and his internal organs failed one after the other. Shchekochikhin’s symptoms, doctors said, were consistent with the extremely rare Lyell’s syndrome—an acute dermatological condition most often triggered by medication. Shchekochikhin died on July 3, 2003.

Convinced that the journalist had not died of an ailment he had contracted naturally, Novaya Gazeta and Shchekochikhin’s relatives filed a request for a criminal investigation. Authorities at the government-run Central Clinical Hospital classified Shchekochikhin’s medical records and lab results as a “medical secret” and refused to release them even to his family. For a time, a curious impasse took hold: The hospital said it would release the records only if prosecutors needed them as evidence in a criminal case; prosecutors said that without the test results they could not open a criminal investigation.

Investigators with the Kuntsevskaya Inter-district prosecutor, a local office, eventually broke the stalemate and obtained the records. But when they submitted the results to their supervisors as part of an appeal to open a criminal investigation, the records were lost and the request rejected, Novaya Gazeta Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov told CPJ. The Kuntsevskaya Interdistrict prosecutor did not respond to a request for comment. Two other prosecutor’s offices in Moscow also rejected a request for a criminal probe, although the medical records were no longer available at that point, Sokolov said.

Shchekochikhin’s family and colleagues say they never saw the medical records. The lost documents have not resurfaced, Novaya Gazeta reported.

Nearly five years after Shchekochikhin’s death, on April 4, 2008, a new group of investigators at the Prosecutor General’s Office in Moscow opened a criminal case into the editor’s death. The Investigative Committee, as it is known, had been formed a year earlier to undertake criminal inquiries, and its staff appeared interested at the time in probing unsolved journalist deaths.

Investigators had Shchekochikhin’s body exhumed, enlisted toxicologists to analyze the remains, and questioned numerous witnesses, Sokolov told CPJ. Based on that research, the Investigative Committee closed the criminal inquiry into Shchekochikhin’s death. Its decision, dated April 6, 2009, said: “In the course of examination of the samples of Y.P. Shchekochikhin’s body tissues, no thallium; narcotics; psychotropic, strong, toxic substances; [or] heavy metals were found. Under these circumstances, in the course of the preliminary investigation, no facts that point to the forcible death of Y.P. Shchekochikhin, including by poisoning, were found.

Sokolov said the Investigative Committee had only the death certificate and secondary documents—and not the detailed, contemporaneous medical records—available for its review. It’s not clear whether Central Clinical Hospital maintained copies of Shchekochikhin’s medical records, or whether the committee sought to recover any of those documents. The Investigative Committee did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

On April 13, 2009, days after receiving the official decision to close the criminal case into Shchekochikhin’s death, Novaya Gazeta pledged it would continue fighting for justice. “We have enough endurance and resolve,” an editorial said. “We haven’t forgotten anything or any one of those who obstructed this case for five years, and we haven’t shut down our own investigation.”

A brief investigation found no foul play in the March 2, 2007, death of Ivan Safronov, 51, a reserve colonel in the Russian Space Force and a respected military correspondent for the Moscow business daily Kommersant.

The journalist fell more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building, authorities and colleagues said. That day, Safronov had visited a Moscow medical clinic—where a doctor gave him good news about his ulcer treatment—gone grocery shopping, made plans with his family and friends, and taken a trolley back home, said Ilya Bulavinov, Kommersant’s deputy editor. About 4 p.m., two university students living in a nearby apartment building heard a thud, saw Safronov on the ground, and spotted a window open above him. Safronov’s groceries were found scattered on the landing between the fourth and the fifth floor of his apartment building. He died at the scene.

The Taganka prosecutor’s office in Moscow immediately ruled Safronov’s death a suicide. Days later, authorities opened an investigation into possible “incitement to suicide” under Article 110 of the Russian penal code, suggesting that Safronov might have been provoked to jump by threat or abuse. By September, however, prosecutors had returned to their initial suicide theory, saying Safronov had ended his life for “subjective, private reasons” that were not disclosed. The conclusion appeared to be based largely on two details: a security camera showing the journalist entering the apartment building alone; and statements from neighbors saying they had not seen or heard a disturbance before the death.

It was unclear why those two details were considered conclusive. No security camera, for example, recorded activity inside the building.

One thing seemed clear: Investigators did not seriously consider Safronov’s journalism to be a possible motive for attack. A CPJ fact-finding mission, led by former Executive Director Ann Cooper, found that police never visited the offices of Kommersant or searched Safronov’s notes and desktop computer. It was Safronov’s colleagues, not investigators, who studied the details of his last phone conversations, questioned neighbors, and talked to his doctor. They passed on their findings to investigators, but the information generated little follow-up. Investigators finally conducted a handful of perfunctory interviews with colleagues, but editor Bulavinov said they seemed reluctant even to jot down the names of the government agencies that Safronov had covered.

Safronov had undertaken some sensitive assignments. In late February 2007, shortly before his death, Safronov had returned from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered an international gathering of defense manufacturers. Colleagues said the journalist had called the newsroom from Abu Dhabi with information about alleged sales of defense technology to Syria and Iran , which were purportedly channeled through Belarus to avoid Western criticism. Three days before his death, Safronov privately told colleagues at a news conference that he had been warned not to publish a portion of the information, Kommersant reported. He said he was told the Federal Security Service (FSB) would charge him with disclosing state secrets, the paper said. He did not say who had warned him.

The previous December, Safronov had embarrassed the Defense Ministry with an exclusive report on the third consecutive test failure of the Bulava missile, developed for deployment on a new submarine. Without a reliable missile, the submarine would be rendered useless, Pavel Felgenhauer, military columnist for Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ. The Defense Ministry was so jittery that it ordered an internal investigation into the leak, according to press reports. Felgenhauer cited the Bulava story as a possible motive for Safronov’s killing.

According to colleagues, family, and friends, Safronov had no “subjective, private reasons” to kill himself: He had no life-threatening illness, was expecting a grandchild, was preparing to send his son to university, had no large debts, was respected at work and loved at home, and appeared to be in good spirits. He left no suicide note.

A military correspondent, Safronov had been summoned for interrogation by the FSB at least a couple of times every year on suspicion that he had “divulged state secrets,” his colleagues told CPJ. Neither defense nor FSB officials at odds with Safronov were ever questioned as part of the investigation.

On September 11, 2007, Kommersant was officially informed by investigators with the Moscow Central Administrative District Prosecutor’s Office that the criminal investigation into Safronov’s death had been closed because foul play could not be established. “In his professional activity, Ivan Safronov covered rather sensitive topics, but ones already covered by other information sources. With his publications, he hardly caused sufficient harm to anyone’s interests, including those of the government,” Kommersant quoted the prosecutor’s statement as saying. Members of Safronov’s family, including his widow, Yelena, had not been told the case was closed, Kommersant reported.

A day later, a frustrated Bulavinov wrote in Kommersant: “As far as I know, investigators never interrogated any official or manufacturer with whom Ivan Safronov had communicated. Obviously, the prosecutors were just not interested in his work, what topics he reported on, what questions he asked. We never found out what really happened to Ivan.”

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