Death of Russian journalist in police detention sparks outrage

Russian journalist Konstantin Popov died Wednesday after allegedly being beaten in a Siberian drunk tank, something Russians say is a common occurrence.

By , Correspondent

Konstantin Popov, a journalist for the weekly Tomskaya Nedelya newspaper in Tomsk, Siberia, set out in early January to celebrate Russia's week-long New Year-to-Orthodox Christmas holiday.

He wasn't looking for a scoop, just a good time. But what transpired next cost him his life.

After being taken in to the Tomsk drunk tank after a night of partying on Jan. 4, Mr. Popov was allegedly viciously beaten by a young police officer. Seven other attendants in the facility reportedly failed to intervene. Popov was subsequently taken to hospital and died Wednesday after spending two weeks in a coma.

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Popov's death has had a sensational public impact, shining a media spotlight on the seldom-discussed yet routine nightmare of Russia's notorious drunk tanks and the impunity with which police allegedly abuse detainees.

His colleagues say the fact Popov was a journalist is the reason his story has reverberated in Russia's newspapers and blogs, though most doubt he was targeted specifically because he was a journalist.

"There have been any number of cases where people have been beaten, humiliated and even badly hurt at that drunk tank," says Alexei Sevostyanov, chairman of the Tomsk Union of Journalists and a close friend of Popov's.

"The fact is that this could have happened to anyone, in any Russian city, and it is one more piece of proof that our police institutions need to be reformed," Mr. Sevostyanov says.

The officer who allegedly assaulted Popov, Alexei Mitayev, has been arrested and faces up to ten years in prison if convicted. The Tomsk drunk tank has been closed, the chief of police has apologized and several other police officers have offered their resignations, according to the Russian media.

It is the latest in a string of embarassments for Russia's Interior Ministry, which runs the police and prison system, including the high profile death late last year of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow detention center, and a videotaped confession of corruption and malfeasance by a Russian police officer that went viral on YouTube

Popov's fate has struck a raw public nerve, and set human rights groups into investigative mode, because of the fact that so many Russian journalists face official harassment and sometimes violence in the line of work

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists rates Russia as the third most dangerous country on earth for reporters. Five were murdered last year, according to the independent Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, and at least 16 have been killed since 2000.

Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center, says he's still not entirely convinced that Popov wasn't singled out by police due to his profession. Popov, a former spokesman for Yukos, the oil company of imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had recently opened a publishing firm and wrote regular columns on economics for Tomskaya Nedelya.

"When police come to know they're dealing with a journalist, it generally makes their reaction harsher," he says. "The figures on assaults against journalists in Russia speak for themselves. And this latest monstrous act of arbitrariness by police is, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary in this country."

Ironically, journalists often avoid covering police scandals, such as the squalid and dangerous conditions in drunk tanks and detention facilities, because "they have made conclusions about the possible consequences if they investigate the activities of the authorities," says Boris Timoshenko, an expert with the Glasnost Defense Foundation, an independent Moscow-based media watchdog.

"If he weren't a journalist, it probably wouldn't have attracted so much attention, but Popov's case is not about journalism per se. It's about how the Interior Ministry works," he says. "Instead of protecting the population, the police are terrorizing it. That's the story here."

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