Russia 13 September 2007

Developments in Safronov and Politkovskaya cases heighten concern about government’s intentions

The announcement that the Moscow prosecutor’s office has concluded that Kommersant defence correspondent Ivan Safronov’s death was suicide, coming amid signs of complete disarray in the Anna Politkovskaya murder investigation, reinforces Reporters Without Borders’ concern about the Russian government’s interest in solving the suspicious deaths of journalists.

Yesterday’s decision by the Moscow prosecutor’s office to close the investigation into the 2 March death of the Kommersant newspaper’s defence correspondent, Ivan Safronov, on the grounds that all the evidence points to suicide, reinforces concern about the Russian government’s desire to solve the suspicious deaths of journalists, Reporters Without Borders said today.

“At the time of his death, Safronov was working on sensitive issues such as Russian arms sales in the Middle East, while those close to him say he had no reason to take his own life, so we have a right to question the reasons that led the police and judicial authorities to conclude so quickly that this was suicide,” the press freedom organisation said.

“After this decision and the latest developments in the Anna Politkovskaya case, we are very worried about the functioning of the committee that has been set up to supervise the Politkovskaya murder investigation,” Reporters Without Borders added. “We hope it will demonstrate that the authorities are seriously determined to combat impunity in the murders of journalists, but it will not be easy and we will continue to follow the case closely.”

Claiming there was no evidence that Safronov’s death was criminal, the Moscow prosecutor’s office yesterday said in a statement: “In his professional activity, Safronov tackled sensitive issues, but these issues were widely covered in other news outlets. It is unlikely that his articles affected anyone’s interests, including the government’s.”

Many journalists, including Safronov’s colleagues at Kommersant, question the conclusion reached by the prosecutor’s office. Kommersant deputy editor Ilya Bulavinov told Reporters Without Borders the investigators just went through the motions and had no interest in finding out what really happened. He said none of the people Safronov had quoted in his articles had been questioned

“The investigation was very hesitant,” Bulavinov said. “When I was questioned, it was only with great reluctance that they took down the names of the different government institutions I mentioned, for fear that they would have to go and question the people who work there.”

Glasnost Defence Foundation president Alexei Simonov told Reporters Without Borders he thought the prosecutor’s office rushed to “conclude that it was suicide without finding evidence that would explain the reason.” He said all of the elements involved in Safronov’s death had not been investigated or made public. He added that if it was not suicide, it was clear why the authorities wanted the case closed.

Aged 51, Safronov was a former colonel in the Russian space programme and a specialist in defence issues and Russia’s military-industrial complex. He was killed when he jumped, or was pushed, from the fourth floor of his Moscow apartment building. At the time of his death, he had been working on a story for Kommersant about Russia’s arms sales to Syria and Iran. He did not get to write it.

The news agency Interfax meanwhile reported yesterday that a member of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov, has been charged under article 285 of the criminal code (concerning “abuse of authority in the exercise of one’s duties) in connection with the Politkovskaya murder. The report was not confirmed by the authorities.

The head of the committee that is supposed to be supervising the Politkovskaya investigation, Vladimir Markin, announced on 11 September that 11 prosecutor’s office investigators, including the one leading the investigation, were no longer part of the team. At this point, it is hard to say who is in charge of the investigation. Kommersant says it is inspector Valeri Khomitski.

Politkovskaya, who was a well-known critic of President Vladimir Putin and who wrote about the war in Chechnya for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was gunned downed in her Moscow apartment building on 7 October 2006.

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