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Russia: Unsolved, High-Profile Assassinations Haunt Authorities

The murder of a liberal member of parliament last month was the latest in a series of unsolved high-profile assassinations in Russia over the past decade. Prosecutors regularly make optimistic announcements that they are close to solving such crimes -- only to retract their statements or simply remain silent later, RFE/RL reports.

Moscow, 5 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When liberal lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down outside his Moscow apartment building last month, prosecutors were quick to say the case would be solved "in short order."

The statements fit a familiar pattern. Other high-profile murders have also been on the verge of being unraveled, according to official statements. But many remain unsolved and continue to haunt the country -- and there is a general expectation that Yushenkov's assassination will also go unpunished.

It was probably that widespread feeling that in turn prompted law enforcers to issue a string of statements recently to indicate they are hard at work.

Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliyev last month announced that of 53 assassination attempts against Duma deputies, "all" had been solved -- "except 16."

Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, meanwhile, told parliament that of eight criminal cases involving the murder of deputies, six had been solved.

But it was a number of statements by Ustinov's deputy, Vladimir Kolesnikov, that caught the most attention. He said the case of another assassinated liberal legislator, Galina Starovoitova -- one of the country's most traumatic crimes in recent memory -- has already been solved.

Like Yushenkov, Starovoitova was a highly visible campaigner for human rights and a vocal Kremlin critic. She was shot dead outside her apartment in her native St. Petersburg in November 1998.

Kolesnikov said last week that the case would soon go to court. His office had previously announced that six people arrested in the case last November had been shown to have taken part in organizing and carrying out the murder.

Curiously, despite his optimistic statements, Kolesnikov refused to release any details about the investigation -- including the suspects' identities.

Yuri Schmidt, chairman of the Russian Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights in St. Petersburg, represents members of Starovoitova's family. He recently won a case in the Constitutional Court that called unlawful a decision by the Federal Security Service (FSB) to withhold information in the investigation.

The verdict makes Schmidt -- who is still awaiting the release of documents -- relatively optimistic: "Inasmuch as people have been arrested and there have been loud announcements that at least some of those who carried out [the murder] are being held, I don't yet have the basis to accuse [prosecutors] of lying and suspect that they are not the people who essentially carried out the crime."

Other observers, however, were more gloomy. Yuli Rybakov, an independent Duma deputy who has close ties to the leadership of the Liberal Russia party that Yushenkov helped found, questioned the recent statements from the Prosecutor-General's Office and said he holds little hope the crime will be solved.

"We've been promised so many times that all high-profile crimes would be solved -- and it turned out to be nothing but a soap bubble so many times -- that I no longer believe anything the Prosecutor-General's Office says," Rybakov said.

In their announcements, prosecutors often play down possible political motives behind assassinations. In Starovoitova's case, the Prosecutor-General's Office said the lawmaker and her assistant -- who was wounded on the night of the deputy's murder -- were carrying a large amount of hard currency.

In Yushenkov's case, politicians from all sides of the spectrum said the assassination was politically motivated -- if for no other reason than that the legislator did not appear to be involved in any business dealings.

But prosecutors have done their best to try to put a different spin on his murder. Interfax quoted unnamed law enforcement sources as saying they suspect the killing of being tied to "economic" motives. Officials also cited possible infighting over finances within Liberal Russia.

Last month, Deputy Prosecutor-General Kolesnikov went so far as to say that "there are no political murders [in Russia]."

The Starovoitova family lawyer Schmidt has criticized such declarations. "When crimes go unsolved, statements like those don't look serious and are even irresponsible," he says.

Critics like Schmidt acknowledge that most unsolved assassinations of high-ranking officials are indeed likely tied to business dealings. These include the murder last year of Magadan Governor Valentin Tsvetkov, who controlled vast swaths of business interests -- including in the highly corrupt gold mining and fishing industries -- in his Far East region.

Another Liberal Russia co-head, Vladimir Golovlyov, was gunned down last year in what most say was a result of his previous work heading the murky privatization of state property in the Chelyabinsk region in the early 1990s.

Tatyana Lokshina, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, said that neither Starovoitova's case nor Yushenkov's will likely be solved. "Unfortunately, for the last several years in Russia, political assassinations have become an increasingly serious problem," Lokshina said. Investigating such murders properly is almost impossible, she added, because the judicial system contains a "fatal flaw" -- prosecutors are responsible for both investigating and prosecuting crimes. "As long as this situation continues, it's clear that it's not possible to expect a sea change," she said. Lawyer Schmidt concludes that despite beneficial legislative reform carried out in the past several years, the judicial system is worsening in practice. "Unfortunately, all the successes of judicial reform amount to nothing...because of the total corruption of law-enforcement bodies and the extremely low level of professionalism among their employees, including in the Prosecutor-General's office," he said.

Another two unsolved assassinations continue to weigh heavily on the country's psyche. One is that of 27-year-old investigative reporter Dmitry Kholodov in 1994. He was uncovering military corruption when a briefcase he thought contained evidence exploded when he opened it.

Six men, including five former paratroopers, went on trial for the murder in 2000. Investigators said the defendants interpreted Defense Minister Pavel Grachev's complaints about Kholodov's articles as a command to murder him, including the order to "sort things out."

The defendants were acquitted.

The other shocker was the killing of popular television anchor Vladislav Listyev in 1995. The newly appointed head of state-controlled ORT television was apparently trying to root out shady advertising deals at the channel at the time.