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‘Planned and professional’ One year later, independent investigators say there’s been a cover-up to hide the murder of three Russian journalists in Africa

Source: Meduza
Evgeniya Novozhenina / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

The official explanation for the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic on July 30, 2018, does not add up, according to a new report by the Dossier Center, released on the first anniversary of the deaths of journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko.

The three journalists went to CAR to try to collect footage of mercenaries from the Russian private military company “Wagner,” which has been linked to catering magnate and close Putin ally Evgeny Prigozhin. The film crew went to Africa as part of a project with the “Investigation Management Center,” which was financed by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. On the evening of July 30, 2018, the three men were killed when they set out in a car to meet a local “fixer” named Martin, who was supposed to help them with filming logistics.

According to official reports, based on testimony from the driver, Bienvenu Duvokamoy, who survived, the Russian journalists were attacked by 10 men wearing turbans and speaking in Arabic. Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko supposedly tried to fight back, resulting in their deaths. The Dossier Center says this version of events was invented by staff working for Evgeny Prigozhin, and then promoted by official representatives of Russia’s Foreign Ministry and Federal Investigative Committee.

The autopsies performed on the journalists’ bodies reveal injuries that suggest the killings were carried out deliberately and professionally. “The gunshots were highly accurate, despite the fact that the murder was committed at night in low-visibility conditions and on rough terrain. The victims were not restrained at the time of the murder, and could move relatively freely,” concludes the Dossier Center’s report.

Also, the victims’ personal belongings, including several valuables, were left behind untouched, which undermines claims that the killings were a robbery gone bad, and the Dossier Center says the local police did not properly examine the crime scene. A few days after the murders, unidentified persons even set fire to the grass in the area, presumably to destroy evidence.

The killings were planned in advance, says the Dossier Center

According to the new report, Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko were under “carefully thought out and planned” local police surveillance before they died. 

Telephone records show that the journalists’ driver was in close contact with a local gendarme named Emmanuel Touaguende Kotofio, who constantly monitored the reporters’ movements, and remained nearby, including at the time of their murder. 

As the Dossier Center has reported previously, Kotofio was in regular contact with Alexander Sotov, who is believed to work for the “Wagner” private military company as an “instructor in surveillance, counter-surveillance, recruitment, and undercover work.” Sotov, in turn, has ties to Valery Zakharov, a Prigozhin-linked mercenary instructor and a national security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Dossier Center says it’s established that Kotofio previously underwent military training in Sudan under the instruction of Russian personnel, and received a promotion sometime after Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko were killed.

The Dutch fixer and United Nations worker “Martin” likely never existed, the Dossier Center says. Martin’s contact information was provided by a Russian journalist named Kirill Romanovsky — a correspondent with the Prigozhin-linked Federal News Agency

Martin’s telephone was registered to “Erika Mustermann,” a placeholder name in German, like “Jane Doe” in English. When recommending the fixer, Romanovsky asked Dzhemal and the others not to call Martin, explaining that his local African mobile connection was too weak to sustain a voice call. The Russian journalists never heard Martin's voice, and communicated only through text messages. 

Romanovsky never revealed Martin’s exact surname, and indicated different last names at different times. Dossier Center reviewed Dutch registration records, scanning for all permutations of the different surnames across several generations of people, but found no evidence of anyone in the population who fits his description.

Staff working for Prigozhin have interfered with the investigation, actively spreading disinformation

Within 24 hours of the murders, staff at institutions and media outlets controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin launched a campaign to distance their owner from the incident, according to internal communications obtained by the Dossier Center. Official representatives of Russia’s Foreign Ministry and Federal Investigative Committee later cited this false information, and in some cases diplomats even coordinated their actions with Prigozhin’s people.

The official murder investigations, both in CAR and in Moscow, have been frauds, according to the Dossier Center. Police have prevented independent investigators from speaking to the main witness (the driver, Bienvenu Duvokamoy), and local journalists and Dossier Center staff received threats, when they tried to learn more about the killings.

Meanwhile, Russian investigators have ignored multiple petitions by the victims’ families. For example, there’s still been no ballistics examination of the journalists’ clothes, which is being held at Russia’s embassy in Bangui. Russian officials have also refused to question Russian nationals Sotov and Zakharov, who may have coordinated the actions of local police, before the journalists were killed.

Prigozhin’s Federal News Agency conducted its own investigation into the murders, carried out by a private detective named Evgeny Gvozdev, who allegedly managed to gain access to case evidence and witnesses that have eluded Russian federal investigators. Gvozdev concluded that the journalists were killed by people linked to French intelligence, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky allegedly had an incentive to see the reporters murdered.

“The text published by the Federal News Agency mixes information obtained by Gvozdev with pure fiction, which leaves no doubt that its authors had no other goal than misleading their readers,” says the Dossier Center

One of Romanovsky’s supervisors, Mikhail Burchik, reportedly played an active role in Prigozhin’s disinformation campaign. Burchik previously served as the director of the “Internet Research Agency,” also known as St. Petersburg’s “troll factory.” In 2016, he was indicted as part of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election.

The Dossier Center is calling on state officials in CAR and Russia to question 18 Russian nationals, all linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, as part of the investigation into the murders of Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko.

Here are their names:

  • Kirill Romanovsky
  • Valery Zakharov
  • Alexander Sotov
  • Dmitry Sytyi
  • Pytor Bychkov
  • Evgeny Kopot
  • Mikhail Burchik
  • Mikhail Potepkin
  • Nikolai Chiklin
  • Andrey Blinkov
  • Igor Osadchii
  • Valery Kondakov
  • Angelica Barilovich
  • Zakhar Panov
  • Artur Makovsky
  • Roman Zhukov
  • Kirill Evstigneev
  • Alexander Kuzin
Read the Dossier Center’s full report (in Russian) here.

Summary by Alexander Filimonov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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