Beketov found guilty of slander as persecution of journalists covering Khimki clear cutting continues

frontpageingressimage_ingressimage_khimki-1.-3..jpg Photo: Bellona

Beketov, editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda weekly published in the district of Khimki, a satellite city of Moscow, was on trial for slander after accusing the local mayor of being involved in a bid to blow up his car in May 2007.

“The court finds Beketov guilty of slander by knowingly spreading false information tarnishing the honour and professional reputation of an individual,” the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted judge Arkady Khalatov as saying.

Beketov’s supporters said the verdict was another sign of degrading media freedom in Russia, where another journalist, Oleg Kashin of the national daily Kommersant, who was covering the same story was beaten so badly over the weekend that doctors placed into an artificial coma to protect his brain.

As editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, Beketov rubbed authorities the wrong way with his articles of corruption involving the Khimki forest, part of which officials have torn down to make way for a highway to St. Petersburg that may or may not be built.

Beketov has been in a wheelchair after a vicious beating by two unidentified assailants near his home left him unconscious in the snow. He had a leg amputated and is unable to speak.

His supporters claim the attack was retaliation for articles criticizing local authorities.

Judge vacates punishment

Beketov was ordered by the Khimki court to pay nominal damages of 5,000 rubles (160 US dollars) but Khalatov then instructed that Beketov escape any punishment due to the time that had elapsed since the offence was committed.

The journalist made allegations against the mayor of Khimki, Vladimir Strelchenko, in September 2007 in a television interview, accusing Strelchenko of “political terror” after his car was set ablaze the previous May.

Beketov not last reporter attacked for Khimki coverage

Beketov had been following controversial plans to build a highway through the forest in Khimki, an issue also covered by the Kommersant reporter Kashin who was severely beaten over the weekend in an attack that shocked Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev forcefully condemned the attack on Kashin, aligning himself with public outrage and promising to bring those responsible to justice.

Strelchenko finally appears in court

Beketov’s supporters had called on Mevedev to do the same after Beketov’s attack in 2008. But the investigation into the assault recently closed without any arrests.

Beketov appeared in the courtroom in a wheelchair and accompanied by doctors. His injuries mean that he was barely able to communicate with his lawyer and could not give a personal statement to the court.

Strelchenko said in court that he was saddened by the attack on Beketov but had no intention of withdrawing his suit.

Beketov’s lawyer Andrei Stolbunov said that he would appeal the verdict and did not rule out turning to international human rights courts, ITAR-TASS reported.

Reporters Without Borders, an international journalists’ rights group, last week called the case against Beketov an “outrage.” Beketov has already made several expensive appearances in court to defend himself against Strelchenko’s allegations, but until yesterday, Strelchenko had refused to testify.

Beketov is meanwhile learning to walk with an artificial leg, the Associated Press reported.  

Doctors on Wednesday voiced cautious optimism that Kashin, who was bludgeoned on the head, arms and legs, was improving, Russian media reported.

The Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights earlier this week announced that it has crafted amendments to the Russian criminal code that would create stiffer penalties for assaulting journalists.

The investigation into the attack on Kashin was initiated under Russia’s statutes on physical abuse and hooliganism, which carries a mild penalty. The failed investigation into the attack on Beketov was initiated under the same statutes.

Charles Digges