Russia reopens cases into 19 journalist deaths

Mourners Filing Past Open Casket of Assassinated JournalistThe Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office has agreed to re-investigate 19 journalists' murders, in a move that has sparked hopes that President Dmitry Medvedev's campaign to reform the law enforcement system is making a difference.

While journalists were happy about the change in tone, some analysts expressed doubt that the decision ­ together with Medvedev's recent drive to create an FBI-style unified investigative committee and his replacement of a top official in the Interior Ministry ­ would bring about real change.

[Original of image copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036]

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists met with top investigators in Moscow last week for an update on what had been done since their last meeting a year ago, when they had submitted a number of unsolved murder cases.

During the meeting, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin assured the CPJ delegation, headed by board member Kati Marton and CPJ chairman Paul Steiger, that important progress had been made in 19 cases of journalist murders, some of which had been reopened.

Bastrykin said that a suspect in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya had been identified but managed to escape to Europe before being caught. In the clearest reference yet to a link with officials, Bastrykin also pointed out that Politkovskaya's killers had sought to curry favour with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen president.

Bastrykin also reported that investigators were making headway in the killing of Memorial human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, whose body was found in Ingushetia last year, with police searching for the prime suspect in the case, Alkhazur Bashayev.

Bastrykin said that Kadyrov had been questioned in connection with the murder, but no evidence of his involvement was uncovered.

Cautious optimism

Journalists were cautiously optimistic about the meeting, welcoming increasing awareness in one of the world's most dangerous countries for reporters.

According to the CPJ data, 52 journalists were killed in Russia since 1992, making Russia the fourth deadliest country after Iraq (144 murders), the Philippines (70) and Algeria (60). It was followed by Colombia (43).

Irada Guseinova, an analyst for the CIS countries at the Centre for Journalists in Extreme Situations, called the decision to revisit the cases "significant."

"We don't know what the results will be. I'd doubt that they will have new trials on Politkovskaya or [Anastasia] Baburova, but the cases of Vagif Kochetkov of "Molodoi Kommunar" and Natalia Skryl from "Nashe Vremya" should definitely be investigated again," Guseinova told The Moscow News.

"We don't really care who brings up the topic of journalists' murders in Russia, be that the Russian Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders or the CPJ, the most important thing is that those cases should not be forgotten."

Medvedev's campaign

The news came amid renewed efforts by Medvedev to reform law enforcement and the justice system.

The Kremlin announced last week that Medvedev had submitted a bill to the State Duma to create a Unified Investigative Committee, after months of talks about an FBI-style agency that would help battle corruption and improve efficiency.

"Clearly, the president's decision on the establishment of the Investigative Committee as an independent structure is a great trust, and also a big responsibility. This, of course, means that the Investigative Committee will have to improve the criminal investigation," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told RIA-Novosti.

Medvedev also issued a high-profile cadre decision, replacing a top aide to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev in a presidential decree. The move echoed a series of firings late last year that coincided with the start of his reform campaign.

Even so, some experts continued to view the campaign as more talk than action.

"I don't see that these initiatives from the Investigative Committee will spill over into real action or change in the situation of the murders of journalists in Russia," Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre told The Moscow News.

Petrov said that the Investigative Committee had recently started re-opening cases, but this was being done to demonstrate a particular image and for political reasons.

"The Investigative Committee, it is clear, agrees with the presidential administration's decisions to establish a new Investigative Committee," he said, adding that this was apparently an act of support for Medvedev's team.

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