The alleged organizer of a brutal attack on prominent Russian journalist Oleg Kashin five years ago has been released from pretrial detention, sparking fears that investigators are trying to shield influential figures possibly linked to the crime.
Aleksandr Gorbunov, whom Kashin believes hired the men who beat him nearly to death with blunt objects in central Moscow, walked out of a St. Petersburg pretrial detention facility on September 11 on his own recognizance.
Earlier in the day, Kashin published a copy of the release papers for Gorbunov, the director of a factory linked to an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He told RFE/RL in a September 11 telephone interview that authorities are attempting to stifle the investigation into his attack by releasing Gorbunov, who had been in detention for an unrelated case on illegal possession of firearms and is formally identified as a witness in the case of Kashin's beating.
"Of course this is an attempt to sweep my case under the rug," said Kashin, a prolific blogger and writer who regularly publishes piercing criticism of Putin and his government.
Rights activists have criticized Moscow for what they call the authorities’ lackluster efforts to pursue the masterminds of high-profile attacks on government critics, even if the actual perpetrators are caught and prosecuted.
A Moscow court last year sentenced five men to lengthy prison terms after convicting them of organizing and carrying out the 2006 slaying of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow. Her supporters say justice will not be served until those who ordered the killing are prosecuted.
Like Politkovskaya's murder, the November 2010 assault on Kashin was among the most prominent attacks on Russian journalists since Putin's rise to power 15 years ago, and then President Dmitry Medvedev announced at the time that "the criminals should be found and punished."
A day before Gorbunov's release, Russian media reported that the official who signed the release papers had taken over the case from the investigator who oversaw the arrest of three of Kashin's suspected attackers.
That move spawned accusations that authorities were trying to prosecute those who carried out the attack while failing to pursue those who ordered and organized the crime.
Earlier this week, Kashin released the names of the three suspects, who worked as security guards at a St. Petersburg factory.
One of the suspects told investigators that Gorbunov, director of the holding company that owns the factory, had organized the beating.
Kashin told RFE/RL previously that he decided to reveal the suspects' names out of fear for his safety in the event that Gorbunov was released from custody.
The factory where Gorbunov and the three security guards worked is part of a holding company owned by the family of Pskov regional Governor Andrei Turchak, a longtime Putin ally.
Kashin has said that the attack followed a public dispute with Turchak on his LiveJournal blog; Turchak had demanded Kashin apologize for an insulting remark.
Kashin told RFE/RL that he does not believe that Gorbunov "independently made the decision to try and kill me," but that he does not "have the right to directly accuse" Turchak of involvement in the attack.
"But at the very least, I think that Turchak should be questioned in my case," Kashin said. "And I also continue to point out that the only link between Gorbunov and me is Turchak. Other than Turchak, I have nothing at all in common with [Gorbunov]."
Gorbunov has other ties to influential Russian officials as well.
After his arrest on the weapons charges earlier this year, he received the support of Sergei Chemezov, head of the state-owned holding Russian Technologies (Rostec) and a longtime associate and ally of Putin’s.
In July, Chemezov sent a letter to the Investigative Committee describing Gorbunov as a "proactive, responsible manager," RBC reported this week.
Rostec, which oversees Russia's hi-tech industries, confirmed to RBC that Chemezov sent the letter and that Gorbunov serves on the board of directors of several of the conglomerate's companies and organizations.
Chemezov was slapped with U.S. and EU sanctions last year over the Kremlin's role in the Ukraine crisis.
Kashin was a special correspondent for the newspaper Kommersant when he was attacked outside his Moscow home late at night.
The beating left him with two broken legs, mangled fingers, a damaged skull, and multiple jaw fractures.
Kashin underwent several surgeries and was kept in a coma during part of his time in hospital.
He told the Moscow-based radio station Russian News Service in a September 11 interview that he believed Gorbunov would flee to Belarus.