‘Dead’ Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko back to life as he reveals officials faked his death ‘to catch a real killer hired by Russian security services’

Babchenko, who had been reported shot and killed in Ukraine on Tuesday, has shown up alive, with Ukranian officials saying his ‘death’ was a trap for a Russian security service assassin

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2018, 1:53am

Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who had been reported shot and killed in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday, has shown up at a news conference very much alive.

Vasily Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, told a news conference on Wednesday in Kiev that the agency faked Babchenko’s death to catch those who were trying to kill him – with Russian security services identified by Ukrainian authorities as the group that ordered the assassination.

Kiev and national police had said Babchenko, a strong critic of the Kremlin, was shot multiple times in the back at his flat building and found bleeding by his wife.

Gritsak first announced at the news conference that the security agency and the police had solved Babchenko’s slaying. He then startled everyone there by inviting the 41-year-old reporter into the room.

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To the applause and gasps of the press, Babchenko took the floor and apologised to the friends and family who mourned for him and were unaware of the plan.

“I’m still alive,” he said.

Before ushering Babchenko into the room, Gritsak said investigators had identified a Ukrainian citizen who had been recruited and paid US$40,000 by the Russian security service to organise and carry out the killing.

The unidentified Ukrainian man in turn hired an acquaintance who had fought in the separatist war in eastern Ukraine as the gunman.

Babchenko, one of Russia’s best-known war reporters, fled the country in February 2017 after receiving death threats.

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He spoke and wrote about leaving the country because of the threats against him and his family. He said his home address was published online and the threats he received were made by phone, email and social media.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker who also moved to Ukraine, said Wednesday that Babchenko continued being threatened after he settled last fall in Kiev, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar television station. Babchenko did not take the intimidation too seriously, according to Ponomarev.

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine were topics on which the journalist was scathingly critical of the Kremlin.

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Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which had earlier denied any involvement in Babchenko’s death, said it was pleased to hear that he was actually alive, accusing Ukraine of “propaganda”.

Having been called unpatriotic over a piece last year on Russia’s intervention in Syria, Babchenko complained of an atmosphere of hate toward his work.

After Babchenko’s ruse was revealed, the plan was slammed by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which called it a “pathetic stunt”.

Christophe Deloire, the head of the Paris-based media watchdog, told AFP that while he was relieved that Arkady Babchenko was alive, “it is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive … for the stunt”.

Deloire insisted the fake set-up “would not help the cause of press freedom. All it takes is one case like this to cast doubt on all the other political assassinations”, he said, referring to the killings of a number of the Kremlin’s critics in Ukraine in recent years.

“It is the state lying, even if it was brief,” he added.

Other Russian journalists that have been killed or attacked

Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya was a prominent journalist at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper who was famous for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya. She was shot dead in her block of flats in 2006.

Politkovskaya chronicled the killings and torture of civilians by the Russian military. She wrote a book critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his campaign in Chechnya, documenting widespread abuse of civilians by government troops. Politkovskaya frequently received threats and was vilified by state media as being unpatriotic.

Five men were convicted in the killing but the investigators never found those who ordered the murder, and her family blamed the government for its unwillingness to go after the masterminds.

Mikhail Beketov

Beketov suffered brain damage and lost a leg after a brutal assault in 2008 following his reporting and campaign against a highway project in Moscow. He died five years later. Beketov wrote about corruption in Khimki, a town near the $8 billion highway.

The founder and editor of a local newspaper, Beketov was among the first to raise the alarm about the destruction of the local forest and suspicions local officials were profiting from the project. In November 2008, Beketov was beaten so viciously that he was left unable to speak.

He was in a coma for several months and spent more than two years in hospitals. His attackers were never found.

Anastasia Baburova

Freelance journalist Baburova was shot and killed in 2009 on a pavement in central Moscow as she attempted to intervene when a human rights lawyer, renowned for his work on abuses in Chechnya was also murdered by a masked gunman.

The lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was shot in the back of the head at close range in broad daylight by a gunman who followed him from a news conference. Baburova, who was walking back with the lawyer from the news conference, was also killed as she attempted to help Markelov.

Baburova, a freelance journalist in her mid-20s, had worked for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, also Politkovskaya’s employer.

Oleg Kashin

Intrepid reporter Kashin was viciously beaten by two unidentified attackers outside his home in November 2010 and narrowly escaped death. He spent days in an induced coma with a fractured skull, and had one finger partially amputated. He survived and eventually recovered.

Kashin has written on a wide range of social and political issues, some politically sensitive. Soon after the attack, Kashin said he suspected then-Pskov governor Andrei Turchak to be behind the attempt on his life as a reaction to a critical post he wrote about him on his blog.

Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medevdev at the time pledged to solve the attack. Kashin was originally full of praise for the investigators who appeared to be trying to find his attackers, but the probe stalled soon afterward.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Kashin conducted his own probe into the attack and several years later publicly accused Turchak of placing an order to cripple or kill him. Turchak has never been questioned, and has denied the accusations.

He currently holds a senior post in the ruling pro-Kremlin party.

Khadzhimurad Kamalov

Khadzhimurad Kamalov, founder of a newspaper in Russia’s North Caucasus critical of authorities, was gunned down outside his office in Makhachkala, capital of the Dagestan region, in December 2011.

Kamalov’s leading independent weekly paper Chernovik has reported extensively on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighbouring Chechnya and has spread across the region.

In 2008, authorities brought a criminal case against several Chernovik journalists under anti-extremist legislation after they published an interview with a former guerilla leader. A court acquitted them earlier this year. Kamalov’s killers were never found.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France Presse