Moscow rehabilitation hospital trying to force out gravely injured opposition newspaper editor

Михаил Бекетов на митинге в Химках

Publish date: June 1, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

A state-run hospital is threatening to discharge an independent newspaper editor and environmental activist who was badly beaten in November despite the fact that he still cannot breath without the aid of life support, a friend of the editor said.

The Sklifosovksy institute, a rehabilitation centre belonging to the Federal Health Agency in the north of Moscow, said Friday that it would eject Mikhail Beketov, 50, editor of Khimskaya Pravda, on Saturday. The paper is distributed in Khimki, a suburb north of Moscow.

The paper is known for corruption exposés and environmental activism, and Beketov was told he would be forced out of hospital, but staff later relented, giving him a few more days to find another hospital, Yevgeniya Chikirova, Beketov’s friend and fellow activist told Bellona Web Tuesday.

Beketov’s attack began a string of several against journalists and activists that has escalated over past months. In most of the cases, police have brushed off the attacks as routine muggings, despite the fact that the victims lost nothing during the attacks but materials pertaining to journalistic investigations.

But, for all the recent attacks and slayings, Beketov’s represents the first incident in which a hospital is trying to shed a patient who, according to friends and other doctors at the hospital, still needs round the clock care.

A secretary for the director of the hospital where Beketov is under care, Konstantin Lyadov, said in a telephone interview that staff had determined he no longer needed medical attention. The secretary, who refused to give her name, said Lyadov was unavailable for comment on Monday.

Lyadov was likewise unavailable for comment on Friday when The Moscow Times attempted to contact him, the paper reported.  

Beketov was found unconscious on November 13th in a pool of blood in the front garden of his house in Khimki. Medical staff said that he had apparently been beaten with metal poles and had lain in his garden for as long as a day prior to being discovered. According to his friends and supporters, Beketov had been receiving threats for the material he was publishing.

He was taken to a local hospital in critical condition where one of his legs was amputated. He was later transferred to Sklifosovksy Insitute with pieces of his skull imbedded in his brain. He remains on a ventilator, breathing through a tracheotomy tube in his throat and was in a coma for several weeks.

He is also still suffering from a lack of proper blood circulation to his brain, said Chikirova.

"With such serious injuries they are throwing him out into the street," she said.

Beketov is currently being guarded by law enforcement officers, and his friends will insist that he is guarded wherever he is taken next, Chirikiova said.

Several hospitals have rejected requests from Beketov’s supporters to take the patient, she said.

Other medical personnel contacted by Bellona Web who have connections to the Sklifosovksy Institute said their facility is intended for long term care, but could not, or would not, shed any light on the decision to eject the opposition newspaper editor. All those contacted asked that their names not be printed.

“This man needs ongoing observation,” said a duty nurse who picked up one of the hospital’s telephone lines.

“He should not be put through the stress of being moved, and he will die if he is just sent home,” she said, similarly requesting anonymity.

Doctors at the Sklifosovksy Institute initially had a far more sympathetic response to their care of Beketov, telling Bellona Web that his injuries were apparently the result of reprisals for his paper’s activism against building a toll highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg that would run directly through the Khimki Nature Reserve.

Beketov’s attack was also met with a groundswell of outrage and support from Moscow environmental and human rights activist who appealed directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to take charge of the investigation.

Regional police and the local Khimki administration, however, have still not detained anyone in connection with Beketov’s attack.

Six journalists have been severely beaten in Khimki alone in the past two years, The Moscow Times reported.

In the latest attack, a page designer with Civil Consent, the only newspaper still critical of Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, a member of the Kremlin-created United Russia party, died in late March after being beaten near his home.

But Moscow Region in general has evidently become more dangerous for human rights activists and journalists as a whole.

Beketov’s lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was shot dead in January in a daylight attack on a street close to the Kremlin. With Markelov was Anastasiya Baburova, a freelance journalist who published with Novaya Gazata, one of Russia’s most fiercely Kremlin-critical newspapers.

In February, 72-year-old Yury Chernov, editor of opposition Solnechnogorsky Forum newspaper was found by neighbours, unconscious and bleeding, in the entryway of his apartment building.

Reporters Without Borders reacted with “revulsion” in a statement issued the day of the attack, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded that “Russian authorities (…) launch a serious investigation into an evident attack on Grachev.”

Initial comments to Kommersant newspaper by the police suggested the attack on Chernov was related to a “sex case.” His paper was known for exposing official corruption, and during the attack, Chernov said only his briefcase containing materials about a journalistic investigation went missing.

In April, 67-year –old founding member of Memorial, a group that catalogues the crimes of the Soviet Era and head of the group For Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, was beaten outside his Moscow apartment building. In this case Ponomaryov said the police has responded satisfactorily to his complaint. But independent calls to the police indicated they were treating the incident as a routine mugging.

In efforts to mollify a public that was growing tense with attacks on human rights activists and reporters, Medvedev in January visited the offices of Novaya Gazeta to personally convey his condolences over the shootings of Baburova and Markelov, who also contributed comment pieces to the newspaper.

Some days later, Medvedev also re-established the President’s Council for the Promotion of the Institutes of Civil Society and Human Rights, which had been mothballed by Vladimir Putin in 2004.

Medvedev’s overtures drew both praise and scepticism. Both Bellona’s Alexander Niktin, and Boris Putstyntsev, co-chair of the Citizen’s Watch rights watchdog, and a member of the presidential council, noted Medvedev needed all the civil society support he could muster in the midst of the Russian and world financial meltdown.