A newspaper reported today that the St. Petersburg law enforcement authorities would soon charge two Russians currently incarcerated in the Czech Republic for the murder nearly four years ago of Galina Starovoitova, the well-known human rights campaigner and State Duma deputy. The paper also reported that the Czech authorities had already agreed to extradite the suspects. A top St. Petersburg police official, however, quickly denied the newspaper report.
Accoding to Vremya Novostei, the St. Petersburg law enforcement authorities informed those in the Czech Republic that two Russians currently in jail there, Yury Biryuchenko and Viktor Kudryashov, are the main suspects in the killing of Starovoitova, who was shot to death in the hallway of her apartment building in November 1998. Citing unnamed sources in Russia’s special services, the paper reported that the Czech authorities had already approved the two extraditions–even asking their Russian counterparts to speed up the extradition process–and that Russian police personnel would soon travel there to escort the two suspects back to Russia.
According to Vremya Novostei, Biryuchenko–also known by the nickname “Tankist” (The Tank Driver)–and Kudryashov were part of a criminal gang formed in the mid-1990s by a former military officer named Vladimir Borisov. The gang, which Borisov reportedly formed after being introduced to a St. Petersburg crime boss named Aleksandr Anisimov, alias “Akula” (The Shark), operated under the cover of a private security firm called Falkon and was made up of some twenty people, most of them former members of Russian special forces units. Biryuchenko, who once served in a tank unit and was twice charged with murdering troops under his command (he was acquitted in the shooting of one soldier and received a suspended sentence for running over another with a tank), was allegedly tasked with training the gang members. Citing information from the Interior Ministry, Vremya Novostei reported that Biryuchenko trained the gangsters at military training facilities and even organized lectures by members of Russia’s special services, who taught them various skills, including how to carry out clandestine operations (including changing their physical appearance), how to carry out surveillance, etcetera. The gang reportedly extracted protection payments from “a significant portion of Petersburg’s businessmen”–those who resisted making such payments were “simply killed”–and carried out killings on contract.
Vremya Novostei reported that its sources in the Russian special services did not indicate why Biryuchenko and Kudryashov had murdered Starovoitova, but that the two indeed carried out the November 8, 1998 attack, with Biryuchenko shooting Starovoitova and her aide, Ruslan Linkov, with an Agram-2000 machine pistol while Kudryashov, dressed as a woman, stood by as backup. Linkov was seriously wounded in the attack but recovered. The paper reported that twelve members of the criminal gang to which Biryuchenko and Kudryashov belonged were arrested in 1998 and went on trial for various crimes last year, but that as a result of a “misunderstanding,” the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office “forgot to extend the period of the detainees’ imprisonment and they were set free” (Vremya Novostei, February 15).
Meanwhile, Aleksandr Smirnov, head of the criminal police for St. Petersburg and Leningrdad Oblast, today categorically denied Vremya Novostei’s assertion that Biryuchenko and Kudryashov were the main suspects in the Starovoitova murder. “We really are working with our colleagues [in the Czech republic] on these individuals, but they had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder of Starovoitova,” Smirnov said. He added that Biryuchenko and Kudryashov were suspects in other crimes and would indeed soon be extradited to Russia. Smirnov also said that St. Petersburg law enforcement had not shared any information about suspects in the Starovoitova case with the media. That investigation, he added, was being carried out “very actively” by the police, who were working in conjunction with the prosecutor’s office and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Smirnov said that the identity of those suspected of having murdered Starovoitova had been established and that “work to discover and detain the suspects is being carried out with foreign colleagues” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, February 15).
Sources in the press office of the FSB’s St. Petersburg branch said that it had nothing to do with any request to extradite Biryuchenko and Kudryashov from the Czech Republic, but added: “The issue of the involvement or noninvolvement of the indicated citizens in the murder of Starovoitova can be conclusively resolved only after their delivery to Petersburg and a complex of operational-investigative activities are carried out” (Interfax, February 15). Meanwhile, Mikhail Vanichkin, head of the Russian bureau of Interpol, the international crime fighting body, would not comment on the Vremya Novostei report but did not deny that Russia had requested the extraditions (Radio Ekho Moskvy, February 15).
For his part, Ruslan Linkov, Staravoitova’s former aide, told Radio Ekho Moskvy that it was unnecessary to travel “to Riga or Prague” to find those who ordered and carried out Starovoitova’s murder. “[I]t’s enough to look in the inner circle of State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev or St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev,” he said. Linkov also observed that Seleznev and Yakovlev should have been interrogated as witnesses in the early stages of the investigation of Starovoitova’s murder, but that this did not happen. “As several employees of the special services told me, there was simply neither the political will nor agreement from the top for such operational-investigative actions,” Linkov said, adding that “the situation today is unchanged.” Commenting on the Vremya Novostei report, Linkov said that the FSB had not recently given out any information about the investigation into Staravoitova’s murder, and that while such information appeared in the press from time to time, it was invariably denied by the FSB (NTV.ru, February 15).
The killing of Starovoitova was one of the previous decade’s many murders of journalists, politicians and businessmen–including the reporter Dmitry Kholodov (1994), TV personality Vladislav Listiev (1995) and State Petersburg Deputy Mayor Mikhail Manevich (1997). While then President Boris Yeltsin vowed to bring the perpetrators of these and other high-profile killings to justice and took these cases under his personal control, they remain unsolved today. In the case of Starovoitova, some of the slain Russian parliamentarian’s allies, including Linkov, said that they believed her murder was politically motivated and that they did not trust the authorities, particularly the St. Petersburg FSB, to investigate the crime properly (see the Monitor, November 23-25, December 4, 23, 1998). Just last week President Vladimir Putin painted a grim picture of Russia’s crime situation, saying that hundreds of thousands of criminals, including more than 7,000 murderers, were roaming free across the country (see the Monitor, February 11; Russia’s Week, February 13).
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