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Where contract killers are the ultimate censors

26.12.2008    source:
David Satter
"As the murders of Russian journalists go unsolved, there are increasing signs that the impunity of Russia’s contract killers is not accidental"

As the murders of Russian journalists go unsolved, there are increasing signs that the impunity of Russia’s contract killers is not accidental. One reason for the lack of progress may be that the law enforcement organs that are responsible for investigating the murders of Russian journalists are actually involved in carrying them out.

On Dec. 5, at the trial of three men accused in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s best known investigative reporter, Sergei Sokolov, the deputy editor of Politkovskaya’s newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told a packed courtroom that he had information showing that Dzhabrail Makhmudov, one of the accused, was an agent of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and that the FSB was shadowing Politkovskaya up until her death in October 2006. Novaya Gazeta is carrying out an independent investigation of the case.

Sokolov refused to reveal his sources, but evidence connecting Politkovskaya’s accused assassins to Russian law enforcement existed well before Sokolov made these latest, sensational accusations. The person accused of planning the murder of Politkovskaya is Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former major in a police unit responsible for fighting organized crime. In a separate case, Khadzhikurbanov and a former FSB officer, Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov, have been charged in the kidnapping and torture of a Russian businessman in 2002. The prosecutor is pursuing charges against Ryaguzov in connection with the Politkovskaya case. The third defendant is Makhmudov’s brother, Ibragim.

If these connections weren’t enough, Sokolov said that he had evidence that the Makhmudovs were recruited to kill Politkovskaya by their uncle, Lomi-Ali Gaitukayev, who also worked for the FSB. This would mean that Politkovskaya’s murder was sanctioned by the FSB at a high level. Unlike the CIA or FBI, the FSB is a military organization. According to Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB officer and author of a new Russian book, The FSB’s New Trojan Horse, "No one can do anything on his own initiative. Even former agents are still subject to discipline."

Sokolov said that Gaitukayev was also in contact with Kazbek Dukuzov, who was acquitted in 2006 of the murder of the editor of Forbes’ Russian edition, Paul Klebnikov. The Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and a new trial was ordered, but in the meantime, Dukuzov fled.

The involvement of law enforcement officers in contract killings should be a momentous scandal, but the elimination of independent centers of power in Russia under Prime Minister (and former president) Vladimir Putin has created a situation in which the organs of law enforcement are integrated into the corrupt oligarchies that run the country. When the interests of those oligarchies are threatened by independent reporting, law enforcement is unable to restrain corrupt interests and is often in league with them. As a result, contract killers function as the ultimate censors.

There are a number of well-known cases in which agents of the Russian security services carried out extra-legal sentences in cooperation with criminal elements. Two former KGB agents were incriminated in the blowing up of a trolleybus in Moscow in 1996 and a plan to blow up the railway bridge across the Yauza River in Moscow. The former KGB agents were part of the criminal gang run by Maxim Lazovsky.

In 2004 and 2005, in Kaliningrad, FSB officers were involved in a gang that engaged in kidnapping and extortion. An FSB agent who was part of the gang described under interrogation how he shot a well-known Kaliningrad businessman on orders from the head of the anti-terrorism department of the Kaliningrad FSB. Amazingly, despite this direct testimony, there was no investigation of the charges by either the FSB or the prosecutor.

In other apparent murders of journalists, important FSB business interests have been at stake. In 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, investigated the Tri Kita ("Three Whales") furniture store chain, which had been evading millions of dollars in customs duties. The co-founders of the company were firms belonging to the father of Yuri Zaostrovtsev, the deputy director of the FSB. In July 2003, Shchekochikhin, who had been in good health, contracted a mysterious illness that progressed from peeling skin to edemas of the lungs and brain. When Novaya Gazeta tried to investigate whether he had been poisoned, it was told that all information was a "medical secret."

Since 2000, there have been at least 16 journalists murdered in Russia. In not a single case has the person who ordered the killing been arrested and in the majority of cases, the mastermind has been neither identified nor sought. In recent comments on press freedom, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said that journalists need to write the truth and "be responsible for the stories you publish." But a far more pressing need is for the Russian authorities to stop using the security services to settle accounts when the published truth is something the regime cannot abide.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State

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