The Moscow District Military Court on June 10 acquitted six defendants accused of killing Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter Dmitry Kholodov in October 1994, arguing that the prosecutor general’s office had failed to present sufficient evidence. Kholodov, who had written a number of articles alleging corruption among top military officials, including then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, was killed when a briefcase he had picked up at a Moscow railway station on an anonymous tip exploded in his office. The six men charged with the assassination – four paratroopers, a businessman and the head of a private security firm – had been acquitted of Kholdov’s murder in 2002. But last year the Supreme Court’s military collegium ordered a retrial.
The military court ruled in the retrial that prosecutors failed, among other things, to prove their allegation that Kholodov had information about preparations for the military operation in Chechnya launched in December 1994. The court also cited that, without that information, there was no evidence to support that one of the defendants, Pavel Popovskhikh, a colonel who was the Russian paratroop forces’ intelligence chief, organized Kholodov’s murder to keep that information from being published. The court said the available evidence did not even confirm that Kholodov knew a military operation in Chechnya was being planned. The military court also accepted Popovskikh’s claim that he had initially confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty to get urgently needed medical treatment. Popovskhikh initially testified that in 1993-1994 Grachev had repeatedly expressed unhappiness over Kholodov’s articles and asked that he be “dealt with” and “have his mouth shut and legs broken” (Interfax, Newsru.com, June 10; Moscow Times, June 11). Immediately following Kholodov’s murder, editors at Moskovsky Komsomolets said he had been investigating illegal arms sales by senior officers of the Western Army Group, the Russian military force based in Germany until September 1994, and that he had also uncovered a secret military training facility near the city of Ryazan at which Russian special forces allegedly trained mafia hit men.
However, in the retrial, the military court rejected this and other testimony and evidence. Further, the court accused investigators from the prosecutor general’s office of violating legal procedures and the Russian Constitution by arresting the defendants when there was no evidence of their involvement in Kholodov’s murder, questioning them without lawyers being present and pressuring witnesses. The court ordered that the case be sent back to the prosecutor general’s office for re-investigation (Ren TV, June 10). That office called the verdict illegal and unjust and said an appeal would be lodged with the Supreme Court.
Yuri Kholodov, father of the murdered journalist, said the verdict had only confirmed his view that all of the defendants were guilty but added that he had been “99.9 percent certain” they would be acquitted because “behind this affairs stands people with too many stars” [on their shoulder boards-EDM] (Kommersant, June 11). The elder Kholodov was less oblique elsewhere, telling Gzt.ru that he remained convinced of Grachev’s involvement in the murder. “That is my opinion,” Yuri Kholodov told the website. “Grachev, of course, did not personally participate in the murder, but pressed his subordinates and does not himself deny that.” Kholodov’s parents said they would appeal the verdict to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Gzt.ru, June 10). Yekaterina Deyeva, a colleague of Kholodov’s at Moskovsky Komsomolets who witnessed his death, told Ekho Moskvy that she believed the defendants were guilty but doubted the verdict could be successful appealed. “Dima was killed by the state machine, and the state machine has investigated his murder,” Deyeva told the radio station (Moscow Times, June 11)
Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, said the verdict confirmed that Russia has no independent courts. “In the 10 years since our country lifted censorship, 240 journalists have been murdered in Russia. But there has never been a clearer situation with a murder as in the Kholodov case – it was clear who ordered it, the motives and who carried it out. And, therefore, to have such a verdict speaks to the fact that we have no judicial authorities here” (Interfax, June 10). The verdict in the Kholodov case followed by one day a ruling by the Russian Supreme Court overturning the Krasnoyarsk Territorial Court’s decision last December to acquit physicist Valentin Danilov, who was charged with selling state secrets to a Chinese company. Human rights groups and scientists have widely denounced the Supreme Court’s decision in that case as politically motivated.