In further blow to journalists, beaten Russian reporter gets slander conviction

Russian reporter Mikhail Beketov, who lost a leg and three fingers to unidentified assailants in 2008, suffered one of many attacks connected to a controversial development project in Khimki Forest.

By , Correspondent

Two years after Mikhail Beketov was viciously beaten and left for dead by unidentified attackers in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, the Russian journalist finally got his day in court Wednesday.

Mr. Beketov, who lost a leg and three fingers in the attack, was ordered to pay 5,000 roubles (about $160) in damages for slandering Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, the very official whom he had publicly accused of corruption and plotting violence against him.

Russia's journalistic community reacted with shock and outrage. Many are describing it as a through-the-looking-glass moment that defines the true nature of their country's justice system. Russian law enforcement has failed to solve any of the 19 murders and scores of beatings of journalists in recent years, but can unerringly obtain satisfaction for an official who feels his reputation has been tarnished by a reporter's work.

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"That's the formula for how the whole country functions," says Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, an independent media watchdog that compiles reports on abuses against journalists. "The honor of an official is priced much higher than the life of a journalist. And everything, from top to bottom, works like that."

Many attacks connected to Khimki Forest

Beketov's conviction in a Khimki court comes just days after another journalist who had offended Mr. Strelchenko, Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin, was beaten in an almost identical manner outside his downtown Moscow home. Mr. Kashin remains in critical condition in a Moscow hospital.

Both Kashin and Beketov had covered the controversy over plans, sponsored at the highest level of Russian government, to build a toll road through Khimki Forest, an old-growth green belt on the edge of Moscow.

A small band of local environmentalists, Defenders of the Khimki Forest, have suffered repeated arrests and many of their members have been attacked and beaten by unidentified thugs over the past three years. Just last week one of the group's strongest local supporters, activist Konstantin Fetisov, was badly injured by several unknown assailants on a Khimki street. He remains hospitalized.

The journalists who cover them have fared no better. Beketov was assaulted two years ago. In March 2009, Sergei Protazanov, designer of another local newspaper, Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye, died after being attacked in Khimki. Just last Sunday, Anatoly Adamchuk, a reporter for the suburban newspaper Zhukovskiye Vesti, reported being attacked near his home in the Moscow-region town of Zhukovsky. Mr. Adamchuk had been covering protests against a planned freeway through the nearby Tsagovsky Forest for his paper.

"I cannot comprehend what's happening, it's beyond belief," says Yevgenia Chirikova, leader of the Defenders of the Khimki Forest. "Now with these beatings of Kashin and Fetisov, it seems like someone has been given a license to attack us with complete impunity," she says.

'A loud and clear message'

Though Wednesday's court judgement against Beketov – who accused Strelchenko of plotting to kill him in a 2007 TV interview – was fairly mild, the symbolism is unbearable, she adds.

"It's just like they're spitting in the face of public opinion. Beketov is a destroyed human being, an invalid, and yet they hauled him into court," after Strelchenko refused to withdraw his suit, Ms. Chirikova says. "It's out of human understanding. I don't know how to live with this."

Strelchenko's press spokesperson, Valentina Skobeleva, says the Khimki mayor was attending ceremonies in honor of national "Police Day" Wednesday, and would be unavailable for comment.

Sergei Strokan, a columnist with Kommersant, says that although Khimki appears to be the epicenter of much of the recent violence, it sends a loud and clear message to everyone.

"There is no way to protect yourself. The only thing you can do is take care not to cross certain red lines," he says. "That leads to self-censorship. When any journalist goes to his computer, he knows he should execute his duty. But he's also a human being, and he's entitled to be afraid. So, every time, there's a hard choice to make."

Will Medvedev come to the rescue?

The fight over Khimki Forest achieved national prominence last summer when President Dmitry Medvedev, responding to a large Moscow rally in support of the environmentalists, ordered the suspension of the road construction plan that had been approved by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Medvedev has vowed to make catching Kashin's attackers a top priority, but activists point out that he has made such promises before without much visible result.

Mr. Simonov, whose organization tracks attacks on journalists, says the present spotlight on the issue is mainly because the recent wave of assaults have occurred in and around Moscow.

"Five other serious beatings of journalists have taken place in the past week, mostly in small provincial cities, and almost nobody notices," he says. "It happens on a daily basis."

A member of the Kremlin's in-house human rights committee, Simonov says he personally gave Medvedev a list of 12 serious cases of attacks against journalists a year ago, but nothing came of it.

"Medvedev's people say he has priorities like fixing the economy, and he'll get to this," Simonov says. "From time to time he sends a signal that he is beginning to understand that you can't modernize the country while these sorts of barbarous things are going on. Maybe he's starting to get it, I don't know."

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