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Journalists assaulted, convicted after covering controversial highway projects

Mikhail Beketov had to be transported to his criminal defamation trial in an ambulance
Mikhail Beketov had to be transported to his criminal defamation trial in an ambulance

Foundation in Support of Mikhail Beketov via CPJ

Khimki Forest, which covers 1,000 hectares of land near Moscow, is home to foxes, elks, wild boars and a number of insect and plant species that are considered endangered. So when local authorities started building a new $8 billion dollar high-speed road to go through the forest to connect Moscow and Saint Petersburg, it didn't sit well with the local community.

A journalist who covered the project was brutally assaulted earlier this month, while another was convicted for defaming the mayor who ordered the highway, report the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and other IFEX members.

On 6 November, Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the "Kommersant" newspaper, was attacked by unknown assailants outside his home in Moscow who were waiting for him with a bouquet of flowers. He was hit close to 50 times with an iron bar, and suffers from a broken skull, jaw, fingers and leg. Kashin had received death threats from a pro-Kremlin youth group following his reports on the Khimki project.

The attack was captured on a security camera and can be viewed here (viewer discretion advised):

"It is completely obvious that the people who did this did not like what he was saying and what he was writing," Kashin's editor, Mikhail Mikhailin, told a local radio station. "I think they wanted to kill him. They almost certainly followed him for a week, watched him at home, followed him to the editorial office, listened to his phone. Those two people who were waiting for him - that was the final stage of the operation, not its beginning."

President Dmitry Medvedev said it was clear that Kashin was attacked because of his work. "It's not the way wallets usually get stolen," he said on television, adding that the attack would be looked into, "no matter who was behind it." Russia's Investigative Committee, the nation's top criminal investigative agency, has opened a probe into the case. Medvedev decided in August to suspend construction of the highway pending more hearings.

Unfortunately, that's not the end of violence connected with the highway. Konstantin Fetisov, an environmental activist working to stop the road, was held by police and questioned last week, reports CPJ. Shortly after he was released, he was attacked in Khimki by assailants who fractured his skull with baseball bats, and today he remains in an induced coma.

The story gets worse - Mikhail Beketov, journalist and former editor of the independent "Khimkinskaya Pravda" newspaper, was just convicted for defaming Khimki's mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko. Strelchenko initiatied and sponsored the project.

Two years ago, Beketov was violently attacked. The attackers broke his skull and legs, and smashed the fingers of both hands, which led to finger and leg amputations. He was wheeled into the courtroom to hear the 10 November guilty verdict.

A day after the verdict was handed down, the Investigative Committee reopened the case of Beketov's attack, which had been suspended for lack of suspects.

"It is sickening that Russia has convicted Mikhail Beketov while allowing the criminals who almost killed him two years ago walk free," said CPJ.

In an apparently unrelated incident, Anatoliy Adamchuk, reporter for the "Zhukovskiye Vesti" Moscow weekly, suffered concussion and head injuries following an attack outside his newspaper's offices in Zhukovsky on 8 November. Besides having to be hospitalised, he shared another commonality with Kashin: he too had covered protests against a highway project. Adamchuk had reported the arrests of children who were protesting trees being cut down in Tsagovsky Forest to make way for a road for a local air show.

WiPC is asking you to call for a full and thorough investigation into the attacks, and for the slander charges against Beketov to be dropped.

Click here to go to PEN International's website for details of where to send appeals
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