Russian journalist beaten by police officer dies

Friday, January 22, 2010

A middle-aged Russian journalist in Tomsk, Siberia, died Wednesday. He succumbed to injuries suffered when a young police officer allegedly beat him into a coma earlier in the month while in a holding cell reserved for the drunk and disorderly. The injuries included severe damage to many of his internal organs.

Authorities identified this little-known reporter who specialized in economics as Konstantin Popov. Popov was one of the cofounders of a small regional newspaper publisher and a local magazine called Tema. In a country where police brutality and corruption—especially against journalists—is not uncommon, the editor-in-chief of Tema, Konstantin Karpachyov, said it was unlikely Popov's murder was in any way related to his work.

Russian police vehicle. (Circa 2005)

However, Karpachyov went on to say that, "This could happen to absolutely anyone. It demonstrates the police terror is aimed against everybody."

"The only thing different about this case is that he happened to be a journalist, so it became a high-profile public case. But the same thing happens every day," said Svetlana Gannushkina, of Russia's Civic Assistance committee. "Usually the cases are just closed down because there's no evidence, nobody testifies, and it's impossible to get to the bottom of it."

Upon learning Popov's identity, numerous members of the state-controlled media strongly criticized the police for their passive response to the actions allegedly committed by one of their own. Following which, news conferences were called, and before long Popov's case began to draw national attention.

This resulted in the holding cell where Popov's beating occurred being closed down. In addition, the deputy police chief resigned as well as supervisor of the precinct in question. The Tomsk police chief apologized. The suspected officer, Alexei Mitayev, was dismissed from the force, arrested, and is said to have since confessed to this crime. Mitayev cited that "stress due to family problems" is what led to his actions against Popov.

The chairman of the Tomsk branch of the Union of Journalists of Russia said that a source close to the investigation told him that Popov was not only beaten but was also "tortured" and "violated" with a foreign object.

"Hands off journalists!" the journalist union said in a statement on its website. According to the United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists, as far as they know, "since 2000, at least seventeen Russian journalists have been killed due to their work, and the killers have been convicted in only one case."

President Dmitry Medvedev said that such police misconduct was not only angering the Russian public, but was also undermining the state's authority. He called for comprehensive reform and ordered the Interior Ministry to cut its staff by one-fifth by 2012.