The Cruel Fates of Russian Whistleblowers

April 11, 2013

It is often said that we should judge a society by how they treat their prisoners, but in the case of Russia, it is noteworthy to look at how they treat their whistleblowers.

On April 8th, 2013, the investigative journalist Mikhail Beketov passed away, prompting an outpouring of international mourning and posthumous honors of his work.  

Beketov had been deprived of a quality life since November 13, 2008, when he was brutally attacked by thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life.  The muckraking journalist was left for dead in the yard of his own home for nearly two days before being discovered by a neighbor.

The attack was so severe that Beketov had to have his leg and four fingers amputated.  He suffered significant brain damage, lost the ability to speak, and was partially paralyzed. When he died earlier this week, he apparently had choked on food and asphyxiated, which his caretakers say was likely due to scaring from the tracheostomy that had to be performed to save his life following the attack.

Like so many before him, Beketov was attacked for blowing the whistle on Russian corruption – specifically a massive highway project that was being planned to cut straight through the protected Khimki forest.  As the editor and owner of the small newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda, Beketov authored numerous articles critical of local government officials and Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko. He was exceptionally critical of a plan to exhume and re-bury the cemetery plots of a number of pilots from World War II (the Great Patriotic War), and also gave extensive coverage to the protest movement against the planned Khimki superhighway.

As a result of his work, Beketov was repeatedly harrassed and threatened. In 2007, unknown persons shot his dog and left the remains on his front steps.  A few months earlier, his car was destroyed by a bomb – luckily he wasn’t in the vehicle at the time. Then in November 2008, he received a phone call from someone who told him “you are being targeted.”  It would be his last warning.

After the brutal assault, police were decidedly unconcerned about Beketov’s attackers, and still today, no one has ever been arrested.  According to one article, “The police promised a thorough investigation, but barely looked up from their desks. Surveillance videos were ignored. Neighbors were not interviewed. Information about politicians’ displeasure with Mr. Beketov was deemed ‘unconfirmed,’ according to interviews with officials and residents.”

The unpunished murder of Beketov underscores a pattern of impunity in whistleblower cases in Russia, where those few individuals who pit themselves against an instance of corruption in the system are not only subjected to a loss of life and liberty, but also a unique level of cruelty and insult.

Consider the well known case of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who exposed a tax rebate corruption scheme by officials of the Interior Ministry using his client’s company, Hermitage Capital Management.  Not only was Magnitsky unlawfully jailed, abused, and denied proper medical treatment, he was subjected to the most inhumane detention conditions.  He kept a detailed journal of his mistreatment, showing each and every step taken by the prison authorities that ultimately caused his death.

But the indignity did not stop with the taking of his life.  After his friends and family mounted a global campaign to see those responsible for his murder held accountable, resulting in the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 by the U.S. Congress, Russia decided to posthumously charge Magnitsky with invented crimes – a desperate whitewash of the thefts of just a handful of people and a profound insult to the grieving family.  Perhaps not yet satisfied with the damage done, the Duma responded to the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions of Russian orphans by American parents.  All to cover up the corruption of the system.

Magnitsky and Beketov are not just isolated cases of whistleblowers being killed off by the Russian government.  Back in 2006, right in the heat of the first show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the head of the legal department of Yukos Vasily Alexanyan was jailed under false charges for blowing the whistle on the state’s corrupt seizure of Yukos.

Alexanyan, an impressively talented Harvard-trained lawyer, had the opportunity to flee Russia as he watched so many of his colleagues be arrested, but he stayed behind to fight the case and defend the company.  In jail, Alexanyan’s health rapidly deteriorated as he suffered from HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis, losing sight in one eye and suffering several organ failures, while the prison authorities subjected him to “medical blackmail” – refusing to deliver life-saving anti-retroviral medication in order to pressure him into giving false testimony against his colleagues.

During a hearing, Alexanyan addressed the Supreme Court via video feed from his cell,  challenging his accusers to spend one day in his condition:  “Whoever is asserting this, I would like to let him have my body for 10 minutes, so he could experience the hellish torment I’m experiencing. (…) This is torture, you understand, torture! Natural, legally authorized torture!”

Three weeks after the European Court of Human Rights ordered his release, the courts granted him bail in January 2009, but the damage had already been done.  Alexanyan passed away at home on October 2, 2011.  He was never convicted of any crime.

All three of these cases originate out of diverse motives and causes, and yet, all three of these men died because of a broken system.  None of these individuals did anything wrong.  They were all completely and unambiguously innocent.  What they did, however, was object to the criminal actions of those in power instead of looking the other way.

Beketov’s journalism addressed the taboo subject of local corruption, and he paid with his life.  Magnitsky’s brutal mistreatment and death may have been more accidental than calculated, but the embarrassing series of cover-ups ever since has drawn in the entire Russian government just to ensure that a handful of thieves can rely on a system of impunity rather than face consequences for their actions.  Alexanyan’s murder by medical blackmail is just one grotesque example of how far certain groups with the state elites are willing to go to legitimize the expropriation of Yukos and build a false case against Khodorkovsky.

It seems that it doesn’t matter who, how, or where these whistleblowers come from or what skeletons they are bringing out of the closet.  The priority is the preservation of the system of corruption that operates within the Russian government at any cost.  The idea that a real investigation could be brought against the killers of Beketov, Magnitsky, and Alexanyan (or the original crimes they exposed) is tantamount to bureaucratic heresy – a crack in the fundamental organizing pillar of Russian power.  In the absence of democratic institutions or an independent judiciary, the only order possible is one based on certain fears and certain assumptions of security.  The idea that you can steal with no consequences or accountability so long as you hold some form of government office appears to be one of the most important principles of discipline under Vladimir Putin’s power vertical.

So what will it take for Russia to change?  When will it ever be safe for the courageous whistleblower to be applauded rather than condemned, awarded rather than murdered?  For as fond as the president is about “anti-corruption” and a few symbolic cases here and there, there is little hope for meaningful change until the administration allows improved conditions for independent institutions to take root and develop a civil society.

Once there is an independent society, it becomes a questions of numbers.  As argued by Yevgeniya Chirikova, an environmental activist who knew Beketov well, in an interview with RFE/RL:  “Above all, that when you are fighting, there must be many people around who support you. You need a big pool of like-minded people. Misha was alone, and he was therefore very exposed. It is better when a large number of people deal with problems in the city so that authorities understand that if they kill one person there are still 120,000 others left that cannot all be killed. People must simply be more active.”

Another whistleblower, Alexey Navalny, goes on trial this week.  We can only hope that the numbers of Russians willing to join in his fight against corruption continues to grow and grow.