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Russia: Journalist Kholodov's Alleged Assassins On Trial In Moscow

Six years after the crime was committed, the alleged assassins of Russian journalist Dmitry Kholodov are finally standing trial. Kholodov, a reporter investigating corruption in the army, was blown up by a booby-trapped briefcase, and his killing is seen as post-communist Russia's first murder of a prominent journalist for political motives. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the trial.

Moscow, 15 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A military court in Moscow's decrepit 19th century "Sailor's Silence" prison yesterday began the reading of an 800-page indictment of six men accused of murdering journalist Dmitry Kholodov. The full reading of the charges against five former paratroopers and a paratrooper- turned-businessman could take up to 10 days.

Kholodov's murder in Moscow in October 1994 created outrage in the capital. It was widely perceived as post-communist Russia's first "contract killing" against a journalist because of his investigative work. A booby-trapped briefcase Kholodov had been told contained important documents killed him almost instantly.

At the time, Kholodov -- a 27-year-old reporter for Moscow's feisty "Moskovsky Komsomolets" tabloid daily -- was investigating cases of graft in the Western Army Group that had just pulled out of eastern Germany. In his articles, Kholodov accused the Western Group of setting up a what he called a "mafia" to sell planes, helicopters, and thousands of tanks illegally. The then defense minister, Pavel Grachev, was often the direct or indirect object of accusations or suggestions of corruption by Kholodov and other journalists.

The assassination occurred only three years after the Soviet era, and censorship appeared to have ended. Its effect -- and perhaps its intention -- was to frighten journalists away from sensitive subjects. Vladimir Kosarev, head of the Defense Ministry's information department at the time, told our correspondent that he noticed how journalists became wary.

"They scared them, they really did scare them. I know journalists who really became more careful after that. Military-affairs reporter Aleksandr Zhilin, who was working then for 'Moskovskye Novosti,' kept out of sight for several months -- and he wasn't the shy sort. It's certainly possible that this reaction -- the fright -- was what was intended, but I don't have the evidence to confirm that."

In its indictment, the prosecution rules out any contract killing. It accuses the six former paratroopers of having concocted the briefcase murder on their own initiative, simply to please the Russian Defense Ministry by ridding it of a journalist seen as meddling in military affairs.

The six defendants, who have already spent up to two years in jail, all pleaded innocent to the charges. They say the case against them is based mainly on testimony that has been retracted since it was first given.

Last week, when the trial formally opened, the daily "Vremya Novostey" tried to piece together the background to the murder, as seen by the prosecution. According to the paper, the prosecution believes the idea for the assassination came from Colonel Pavel Popovskykh, former head of the paratroopers' intelligence department. In 1994, Popovskykh was often present at meetings presided over by Grachev where the minister lashed out at journalists' criticisms of the army.

The prosecution is also said by the paper to contend that in order to ingratiate himself with Grachev, Popovskykh decided to teach journalists a lesson. The daily says Popovskykh asked two paratroopers from an engineering regiment, Aleksandr Soroka and Vladimir Morozov, to make the bomb and booby-trap a briefcase, and the two involved four other alleged accomplices.

Eventually, Kholodov was told in a mysterious phone call that he would find documents relevant to his investigation in a briefcase left in a Moscow train station locker. Kholodov went to the station, picked up the briefcase, took it back to his office, opened it -- and it blew up in his face.

The defense, however, says that this entire scenario is based largely on the testimony of a single soldier who was serving in the same regiment as the alleged bomb-makers and has since retracted his accusations. The defense also notes that one of the indicted former paratroopers, who first admitted his guilt, has since also retracted his testimony. At the time of the murder, Kholodov was due to speak out at a State Duma hearing on corruption in the army. In addition, the dismissal of a Western Group general some weeks after Kholodov's murder further tied the Defense Ministry to the case. Deputy Defense Minister Matvey Burlakov -- who commanded the Western Group until it left Berlin -- was fired by Yeltsin because of what was called "on-going investigations" and to "save the honor of the armed forces." Burlakov was regarded as a close associate of Grachev.

Former Defense Ministry information chief Kosarev confirms that Grachev was furious about articles at the time that raised suspicions of corruption about himself or the Western Group.

"Indeed, Kholodov's articles irritated the heads of the Defense Ministry at the time -- I mean, above all, minister Pavel Grachev. Sometimes they enraged him to the point where he screamed. He would get indignant, saying, 'That little kid allows himself to cover me in mud.' Not only that, at ministry meetings, I would be rebuked for not stopping this flow of criticism."

Over the years, many journalists have expressed their apprehension that full light would never be shed on the Kholodov murder. In the view of many of them, the ex-paratroopers may only be scapegoats in a case reaching far further up the military ladder. Commenting on the trial yesterday, Russia's private NTV television said that "one accused is missing -- the seventh one, the one who ordered the murder."