Investigators in two cases are quick to classify slayings as the product of street crimes such as robberies rather than probe more sensitive motives.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
The extent of deadly reprisals against journalists in Russia is understated in official records. Foul play is ruled out in some cases; work-related motives are ignored in others. In two glaring cases, investigators were quick to determine that journalists had been slain in common street robberies unrelated to work.
In each case, the evidence shows the assailants were strangely uninterested in valuables carried by the victims. Gold jewelry, a diamond ring, and cash were left behind. And in each case, investigators spent little time checking work-related leads, examining the victims’ published work and notes, or interviewing colleagues.
Natalya Skryl, 29, and Vagif Kochetkov, 31, were killed three years and hundreds of miles apart in cases that were classified as robberies and unsuccessfully prosecuted. The cases have grown cold, and the victims’ families have been left dispirited and fearful. In one case, a relative who had sought a more thorough investigation said she was warned to stop speaking out.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on March 8, 2002, Natalya Skryl was walking from a bus stop on her way home from a party. A business reporter for Nashe Vremya in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Skryl lived with her parents in Taganrog, an industrial city on the Azov Sea. Lately, she had been reporting on the struggle for control of the Taganrog-based company Tagmet, a large manufacturer of steel pipes.
A man who approached from behind struck Skryl a dozen times with a pipe or similar heavy object. Her screams alerted neighbors, who found her lying in a pool of blood, local press reports said. She was immediately taken to a hospital but died the next day, her body so disfigured that her father did not recognize her. The assailant, described by witnesses as a young man with long black hair, did not take the money in Skryl’s purse or her gold jewelry, her family told CPJ. There was no evidence, in fact, that anything had been taken.
Skryl had written several articles about a fight over management of Tagmet. By March 2002, the two-year-long dispute had reached its peak: An alternative board of directors was seeking to oust the management; armed guards were deployed around the plant; the director had virtually barricaded himself inside. Taganrog at the time was in the midst of a wave of privatization, and times were turbulent. “There was big money to be divided among interested parties,” Nashe Vremya’s top editor, Vera Yuzhanskaya, told CPJ in a 2005 interview. Many prominent people were turning up dead that year, she said. A court official was found shot in his office; a well-known businessman and a police official were found dead in what were termed suicides; the mayor was gunned down next to his house.
The day she was attacked, Skryl told a colleague she planned to meet a source for the Tagmet story. “Natalya didn’t say who the person was, but she mentioned that he was supposed to pass her more detailed, confidential information about Tagmet,” said Irina Khansivarova, an editor who sat near Skryl in the newsroom. Aleksandr Pestryakov, another colleague, said Skryl’s coverage had become increasingly detailed and critical around the time of her death. Skryl, he said, “had her finger on the pulse” of Tagmet.
Officials in the Taganrog prosecutor’s office initially ruled out robbery as a motive because Skryl’s jewelry and money had not been taken. Five days after the slaying, the Taganrog police announced that they had three suspects in custody. But the three were soon released, and the investigation seemed to take a turn. In late July 2002, police announced that robbery was the motive after all and that the crime was not related to Skryl’s work, the Ekho Rostova radio station reported at the time. No explanation for the switch was offered.
Grigory Bochkaryov, a former colleague, told CPJ that investigators never questioned Skryl’s co-workers in any depth and did not issue a composite drawing of the suspect. Khansivarova told CPJ that an investigator had spoken with her once—for about two minutes, she estimated. She volunteered that Skryl had planned to meet a source for the Tagmet story, but the information generated no follow-up from investigators.
By September 2002, Taganrog authorities closed the investigation for lack of suspects, Yuzhanskaya told CPJ. Nearly three years elapsed with no evident change in the case before authorities responded to queries from press freedom groups by issuing contradictory statements.
In a June 10, 2005, letter, the Prosecutor General’s Office told the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation that investigators in Taganrog had suspended the case after exhausting every lead. The next month, after CPJ convened a Moscow conference in which relatives and colleagues of several slain journalists voiced frustration with law enforcement efforts, Russia’s top prosecutor issued a different statement. The investigation in Skryl’s case “continues,” the prosecutor’s office said in a July 11, 2005, response to a CPJ inquiry.
But not actively, at least not anymore. CPJ’s 2009 requests for comment on the status of the case were passed among three different investigative offices, including the Rostov Investigative Committee. In July, committee official S.G. Martynenko said in a written statement that active work on the case had been suspended. He did not elaborate.
Nellya Skryl, the reporter’s mother, told CPJ that authorities were not communicating with her either—and, disturbingly, she said she was afraid to speak in detail about the case. That reflected a notable change from 2005 when Skryl took part in the CPJ conference and talked openly about the ineffective investigation into her daughter’s slaying. Along with other participants, she signed a public declaration that called on Russian authorities to solve the spate of journalist murders.
Speaking to a CPJ reporter in April of this year, Nellya Skryl said: “I was warned that while I have living relatives, not to interfere in this case. I don’t want to interfere, because I’m afraid for my relatives. If I were asked, I would say: Close this case and everyone will be safer.” She declined to say who had warned her. Then, she added: “Anyway, they won’t investigate [the killing]. If the state supported the victims, it would have been interested in the swift apprehension of the killers. … But nobody is interested in that. [Television anchor Vladislav] Listyev was killed; [Anna] Politkovskaya was killed. And what? The killers have not been found, and they won’t ever be. And these are famous people, unlike my Natasha.”
At about 11 p.m. on December 27, 2005, Vagif Kochetkov, a political reporter for the newspaper Molodoi Kommunar in the city of Tula, headed home after meeting friends at a coffee shop. He was to go on a business trip in the countryside the next day and needed to pack, Aleksandr Yermakov, Molodoi Kommunar’s editor, told CPJ. As Kochetkov approached his home, at least one assailant struck him on the head with a blunt object and took his bag and cell phone; his money and a diamond ring were left behind, according to press reports and CPJ sources. The bag, Kochetkov’s stepfather, Yuri Baikov, told CPJ, contained the journalist’s passport, press card, credit card, and work-related documents. (A caretaker found the bag three months later in the basement of a nearby apartment building. It contained everything but the documents, Baikov said.)
Neighbors found Kochetkov lying unconscious on the ground around 2 a.m. on December 28. They revived the reporter and helped him walk home. Kochetkov did not seek immediate medical attention or report the attack to the police; he would not tell his parents whether he recognized his attacker.
When Kochetkov sought treatment at a hospital the next day, doctors diagnosed two hematomas and said his condition was not life-threatening, Baikov told CPJ. But on January 1, 2006, Kochetkov’s health began to deteriorate. He underwent brain surgery on January 5, fell into a coma, and died three days later. An autopsy showed he had suffered a skull fracture, a concussion, multiple chest bruises, and other injuries, according to press reports and CPJ interviews.
Kochetkov’s parents, Yuri and Valentina Baikov, reported the attack on January 7, 2006, and Tula police opened a criminal investigation. Two days later, police said they had a suspect.
On April 3, 2006, Tula prosecutors announced they had completed their investigation, determined Kochetkov’s death to be the product of a robbery, and filed robbery and manslaughter charges against Yan Stakhanov, 26, a Tula man with a criminal record for assault who was vaguely described in local press reports as a businessman. Investigators did not question Kochetkov’s colleagues about his recent work assignments, nor did they look at the reporter’s computer or notebooks for leads, family and colleagues told CPJ. Although Kochetkov had worked on sensitive issues before his murder, authorities appeared uninterested in his reporting.
Just before the attack, Kochetkov wrote an article in Trud—a Moscow newspaper for which he was a local correspondent—on the activities of a Tula drug-dealing gang. The December 16, 2005, article was headlined, “Revenge of the Mafia?” In a June 17, 2005, article for Molodoi Kommunar, Kochetkov criticized the business practices of Protek, a pharmaceutical company in Tula.
Journalists at Molodoi Kommunar told the Moscow-based news Web site Newsinfo that Kochetkov had received telephone threats in connection with his reporting. But both family members and colleagues said Kochetkov generally kept specific concerns to himself.
The trial of Stakhanov opened on April 17, 2006, in the Proletarsky District Court in Tula. Stakhanov was said to have confessed to the killing during the preliminary investigation but said later that police had coerced his statements, local press reports said.
Coerced or not, Stakhanov’s statements contained discrepancies, according to Yuri Baikov, who was the family’s official legal representative at the trial. Stakhanov initially claimed that he had hit Kochetkov once, had taken a mobile phone and bag, and had thrown the bag into a local river; in a subsequent statement, he said he had hit Kochetkov multiple times, taken his phone, and thrown his bag into a basement nearby.
Even if Stakhanov were a plausible suspect, Baikov said, common sense would suggest that someone else had ordered the attack. “I don’t believe this man attacked my son so he could take his cell phone,” Baikov told CPJ in April. “This man can afford to hire two lawyers to defend him, has a job, a car, and he gets tempted by a cell phone? … But police immediately said that the case was a mere robbery. No other versions were considered,” Baikov said. Among other gaps in the probe, he said, was that investigators never examined the computer hard drive his son used at home.
In April 2008, Judge Andrei Shmakov found Stakhanov not guilty, ruling that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence.
In the months after Stakhanov’s acquittal, Baikov filed unsuccessful appeals with the Tula Regional Court and the Supreme Court. In November 2008, he traveled to Moscow to meet with Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and deliver a letter addressed to President Dmitry Medvedev, asking for a new investigation. In April of this year, Andrei Ponomaryov, a senior official in the Tula prosecutor’s office, told reporters at a news conference that his agency would reopen the case. “It has now become apparent that the real criminals have evaded responsibility,” Ponomaryov said.