The body's missing - was it murder?
By Maria Yulikova Posted Jul 1 2007
The murder of crusading Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the assassination of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and the mysterious death of another reporter, Ivan Safronov, have provoked an outcry over the political climate in Russia. However, the murder of a well-known St. Petersburg journalist has largely escaped public scrutiny.
It is possible that this particular case may have cost a senior Russian official his job. The suspects in the murder are officers in the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Yet, the prosecutors refused to disclose details of the case. One investigator, Sergey Vladimirov, sacrificed his career and received threats from the suspects, which made the story even more intriguing.
On June 29, 2004, Maksim Maksimov, 41, a well-known St. Petersburg investigative journalist disappeared. At the time, he worked for Gorod magazine, and was investigating the activities and contacts of Mikhail Smirnov, an MVD lieutenant colonel. In December 2006, Maksimov published an article, titled “Invisible Boy”, in which he mentioned Smirnov’s illegal machinations and how he was investigating them.
Previously, Maksimov was a staff writer for local newspaper Smena and also worked at The Agency for Journalistic Investigations (AJUR). He covered the murders of State Parliamentarian Galina Starovoitova, as well as well-known businessman Ruslan Kolyak. He also covered the attempted murder of the advisor for the Russian Parliament, Mikhail Osherov.
Initially, both the police and his colleagues suspected that Maksimov became involved in a crooked real estate deal. Maksimov was a downtown property owner but suspected not to be of interest for local “apartment hunters.” These are criminals who seek good city apartments, and then cheat elderly owners by offering them much less than the actual cost of their apartment. Police had other theories unrelated to Maksimov’s work: he may have been accidentally killed by carjackers or by an offended friend or relative. A criminal investigation was opened on July 16, 2004; however, by the winter of 2004, all explanations for his disappearance were ruled out.
Investigators discovered the journalist’s car in a parking lot in downtown St. Petersburg. No strange fingerprints were found. Maksimov’s colleagues found his mobile phone without the SIM card after someone bought it at a St. Petersburg outdoor market. After examining all the recent mobile phone contacts of the journalist, Maksimov’s former colleagues from AJUR in St. Petersburg, started their own investigation, and a chain of events began to form.
On June 29, 2004, Maksimov received his last cell phone call at 7:35 p.m. from Andrey Isayev. Promising to provide some information to the journalist, Isayev asked Maksimov for a meeting. When they met, Isayev led the journalist to an apartment on Furshtatskaya Street to meet with Mikhail Smirnov. Maksimov had previously interviewed Smirnov, so he didn’t hesitate to go.
Five men were waiting for Isayev and the journalist there: Smirnov, Majors Lev Pyatov and Andrei Bochurov from the corruption division of the Northwestern Federal District’s Interior Ministry, Rustam Mesheryakov and Sergey Neleksetov, who have criminal records.
According to Isayev’s and Mesheryakov’s testimonies (Neleksetov allegedly died shortly after the incident from a drug overdose), Smirnov asked Isayev to go into another room where Isayev heard the men beat Maksimov and then choke him to death. The killers wrapped the journalist’s body in plastic, put it into Smirnov’s car trunk and went to the suburban town Solnechnoye. There, Smirnov and Pyatov hid the body in a forest while the other two criminals stayed near the highway to keep watch.
No one has ever been charged with Maksimov’s murder. His body hasn’t been found, and the case remains classified. Smirnov, Pyatov, Bochurov, and Isayev are have been indicted for fraud and falsification of criminal evidence but remain only suspects in the murder. Until the body is found, the prosecutors refuse to charge them.
“There is no article in Russian Criminal Code banning murder charge, if the dead body is not presented,” Evgeny Vyshenkov, AJUR’s director deputy says. “Moreover, if the body is destroyed, the murder is considered particularly brutal.”
On June 30, 2005, the Northwestern Federal District’s Interior Ministry issued a statement denying the involvement of the three police investigators in Maksimov’s disappearance. The Interior Ministry said it “considers inadmissible and premature the appearance of press reports, accusing [the investigators] of masterminding the murder of journalist Maksim Maksimov.” Authorities have not commented further on the investigation, the identities of anyone else held in connection with the crime or the status of the case.
In September 2005, with the help of Maksimov’s former colleagues, Rimma Maksimova, the journalist’s mother, hired a company of soldiers to search for the body in the forest. She also sent letters requesting a more effective investigation into her son’s murder.
The letters went to the former and present Russian General prosecutors, the Internal Affairs’ Minister and the Chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly, the mayor of St. Petersburg and the chief prosecutor of St. Petersburg. In April 2006, Russian daily newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda published Maksimova’s letter to President Vladimir Putin, in which the mother asked the President for assistance.
The offices of both the former and the present German Chancellor sent requests on behalf of Maksimov’s mother to Putin’s administration and the Russian General Prosecutor’s deputy in St. Petersburg. There wasn’t a reply or a formal acknowledgement of continuing the investigation.
In August 2006, Maksimova met with St. Petersburg Mayor Valentina Matvienko, who assured the desperate mother that she would oversee the case. In June 2006, investigator Sergey Vladimirov was fired because he refused to release the suspects.
On November 14, 2006, Andrey Novikov, the deputy of Russian Internal Affairs’ Minister was made head of the CIS Anti-Terrorist Center. According to the local media, this was an actual demotion, since Novikov controlled Russian criminal police and most of the major activities for the Ministry. He also aimed to become the next Minister. Moreover, his colleagues expected that he would be moved to Putin’s diplomat house in the Southern Federal District.
On November 30, 2006, Dzerzhinsky district court in St. Petersburg classified Maksimov’s case as murder.
Most of press freedom groups routinely keep Maksimov’s name in a hazy section of “missing journalists”.
Maksimov’s mother doesn’t know what else she can do to bring her son’s murderers to justice or even if Novikov’s demotion is a sufficient penalty for the murder.
In February 2007, a number of independent Russian news Web sites posted the article “Overturn in MVD and Death of Journalist Maksimov”, by Andrey Goranov, in which Goranov connected Maksimov’s murder with Novikov’s resignation.
According to Goranov, Smirnov and his cohorts directly served Novikov. AJUR rejects Novikov’s involvement in the case though. Nevertheless, it is possible that the ex-deputy minister paid for his subordinates’ crimes with his job.
Boris Timoshenko, an expert from Glasnost Defense Foundation, a press freedom organization in Moscow, says the GDF sent requests for information on the case to the general prosecutor’s office six times.
“We always received nothing but the general statements on continuing the preliminary investigation in response,” Timoshenko says. “Once, the office notified us on the investigation’s suspension because of lack of suspects, but then the prosecutors resumed the case. Unfortunately, I think, the suspects will never be charged with this murder; the prosecutors in St. Petersburg don’t want this to happen.” In any case, these actions didn’t lead to the arrest of anyone for the killing of Maksimov.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, 13 Russian journalists were killed for their work since Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. No one has been convicted for them. Sometimes, the local public even knows who are behind the crimes, but it makes no difference.