Appellate court reverses defamation verdict against crusading Khimki editor Beketov

фото: Анна АРТЕМЬЕВА, "Новая газета"

Publish date: December 12, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – A city court in the Moscow satellite town of Khimki reversed a defamation verdict against newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov that was handed down last month in a case brought against him by Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko. The appellate court found no criminal intention in remarks made my Beketov about Strelchenko on television in 2007.

The court also expunged record of the criminal investigation against Beketov, the editor of Khiminskaya Pravda weekly, and concluded that there was no proof that he intended to criminally defame Beketov. Prosecutors still have the right to seek an appeal.  

Criminal charges of libel were filed against Beketov by Strelchenko in August  of 2007, four months after Beketov accused Strelchenko and his administration of “political terror” in  their relations to the media on a television program that aired in May that same year. Beketov’s remarks followed someone setting his car ablaze.

In 2008, Beketov was the victim of a savage beating in front of his apartment building that his supporters attribute to his paper’s opposition to an $8 billion highway project that would have run though an ancient oak wood in Khimki, north of Moscow, to St. Petersburg.

The attack left Beketov with brain damage and doctors had to amputate one of his legs and several of his fingers. He is also not able to speak. The incident put the Khimki Forest issue on the map as a politically volatile issue.

In November, Oleg Kashin, a reporter with the Russian daily Kommersant was also attacked in a beating that was caught on a video surveillance camera. The footage, which was aired on national television, showed one attacker holding Kashin down while another beat him with a pipe, and outraged the nation.

Beketov was meanwhile forced from his hospital bed numerous times to attend court hearings on his defamation case at which Strelchenko initially refused to appear, a series of events that was deplored by Reporters Without Borders, an international journalists rights watchdog.

The November verdict of a Khimki court found Beketov guilty of slander, put imposed a nominal fine of 5000 roubles ($161) and freed him of any other punishment as the statue of limitations on the supposed crime had run out.
Because the attack on Kashin bore so many similarities to the attack on Beketov, the Moscow rumour mill began to feature Strelchenko’s name, implying he had links to the beatings. Strelchenko eventually had to issue a statement in November saying he had nothing to do with either attack.

Also in November, Beketov began to put in appearances at numerous rallies held in his and Kashin’s honour, as well as in the honour of environmentalists Konstantin Fetisov, who was also beaten for his opposition to the highway project.

Kashin himself, upon regaining consciousness after a medically induced coma, told investigators that his attack was directly related to his coverage of the Khimki Forest issue.

The thunderous rallies for press freedoms in Moscow resulted in the drafting of legislation that stiffens punishment for attacks on journalists, though the bill has been met with mixed reviews in the media community.

Russian President Medvedev also promised to find Kashin’s attackers even if high-level officials were involved. Prosecutors also reopened in November  the investigation into Beketov’s attack, which has been closed without any arrests a few months earlier.

The Khimki Forest highway project has also been halted as the government considers alternaive routes. The cessation of tree felling began after numerous demonstrations held by the Defenders of the Khimki Forest drew the attention of Russian and international rock stars like Yury Shevchuk of Russia’s DDT and Bono of U2.

Many environmentalists claim, however, that clear cutting continues. The contractor responsible for the clear cutting, Teplotekhnik, has also brought civil suit against Yuliya Chirikova, who heads up the Defenders of Khimki Forest, as well as two journalists.

While the issues surrounding Khimki are far from resolved, the overturning of the guilty verdict against Beketov will now allow him to travel to Germany, where he is seeking to work with speech pathologist to restore his speech.

Lyudmila Fedotova, who is running a fund to support Beketov’s medical care, told Bellona Web she plans to contact Medvedev with an appeal that the Russian state pay for Beketov’s hospital stay in Germany. If Medvedev refuses, said Fedotova, the organization will solicit donations.   

Bellona’s St. Petersburg office contributed to this report.