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A coalition of investigative journalists says ‘The New York Times’ is wrong about a Berlin murder, but the killer is still likely a Russian state assassin

Источник: Meduza
Der Polizeipräsident in Berlin

On September 26, The New York Times cited an anonymous email in a report claiming that former Chechen separatist commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili’s killer is likely an ex-cop from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Stepanov, a convicted murderer who was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Several Russian news outlets — The Insider, Fontanka, Interfax, and Znak.com — as well as Bellingcat, have now challenged the allegations by The New York Times, stating that Stepanov is still incarcerated, and the man arrested in Berlin for killing Khangoshvili is someone else. The Insider and its partners have also published new information about the killer’s fake identity.

What we know about the murder

An ethnic Kist from Georgia, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili served as a field commander in the Second Chechen War, fighting alongside Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov. After the war, Khangoshvili survived four assassination attempts, before relocating from Georgia to Germany. On August 23, 2019, he was finally shot and killed in Berlin.

Police arrested a Russian citizen as a suspect in the murder. On August 30, The Insider, Bellingcat, and Der Spiegel published a joint investigation stating that the suspect’s passport falsely identified him as “Vadim Sokolov.” The report also claimed that the man in custody carried out the murder on orders from either Russian intelligence or Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security apparatus. To travel to Berlin and kill Khangoshvili, the murderer was apparently given a fake identity — a theory supported by the fact that there’s no data about anyone named “Vadim Sokolov” in most of Russia’s state databases, and his passport was issued 11 days before he applied for a Schengen Visa to visit Germany.

On September 26, The New York Times reported that Sokolov’s real name is Vladimir Stepanov, a former St. Petersburg police major who moonlighted as a hitman. In 2005, Stepanov was sentenced to 24 years at a maximum-security prison in the Nizhny Novogord region for a host of crimes, including the murder of a businesswoman named Elena Neshcheret. The New York Times based much of its reporting on an anonymous letter fingering Stepanov that was emailed to investigators in Berlin. The newspaper said at least one detective believes the email is credible, though German law enforcement continues to doubt Stepanov’s involvement in Khangoshvili’s death. 

Not so fast, NYT

The Insider and its partners at Bellingcat and Dossier Center, as well as Der Spiegel, several weeks ago received an anonymous tip that ex-cop Vladimir Stepanov is responsible for killing Khangoshvili. The journalists say this is the same letter that informed the story published by The New York Times. Unlike their American colleagues, however, this investigative coalition determined that the anonymous email is unreliable for several reasons.

First, Stepanov’s sentence keeps him behind bars until 2029. Theoretically, he could have qualified for early parole (after serving at least half his sentence and substituting correctional labor for the remainder) or early release on medical grounds, but a prison staff member told The Insider that Stepanov is still locked up, and he sent a photograph to prove it. (The Insider and its partners have not published this image.) Two former St. Petersburg police officers who shared a cell with Stepanov confirmed this information to the news agencies Fontanka, Interfax, and Znak.com.

The Insider’s source also stated that Vladimir Stepanov has no tattoos, while the man in custody in Berlin reportedly has three.

Second, the investigative journalists maintain that the suspect in Germany bears no resemblance to Stepanov’s photograph from prison. The New York Times, on the other hand, found “two potential photos” of Stepanov from his trial, and a facial recognition expert told the newspaper with “90-percent certainty” that he’s the same man now arrested in Berlin.

The Insider and its partners also obtained Stepanov’s passport file, which includes two photographs: one at the age of 20, and another from 2016, when Stepanov was 45 years old. Bellingcat provided photographs of “Sokolov” and Stepanov to Hassan Ugail, a professor of Visual Computing at the School of Engineering Bradford, in England, who determined that they are different people. Stepanov’s two former cellmates say the same thing.

Fontanka also published Stepanov's photograph:

Third, The Insider and its partners argue that it would have been risky to send Stepanov on a secret assassination mission. As a convicted murderer, his fingerprints are registered on multiple Russian state databases, and the fingerprints on file from his European visa documents would have made it easy to identify him.

But “Vadim Sokolov” is still a phony name, and his passport number, registered address, and employer are all warning flags

Investigative journalists initially reported that they couldn’t find “Vadim Sokolov” in any Russian state databases, but later they were able to dig up traces of the man’s tax records, including his taxpayer identification number (INN), which was issued on July 23, 2019 — just five days before he applied for a passport to travel abroad. 

The INN file also listed the domestic passport number assigned to “Sokolov,” but journalists were unable to match this number to any records contained in leaked offline passport databases, leading them to conclude that the “number was spun out of thin air.” A source also tried to find this passport number in the “Rospasport” database, only to receive the message: “Identity information is protected by the law. To obtain this information, contact an administrator.”

According to the INN file for “Stokolov,” his registered address is in Bryansk. The Insider and its partners say this, too, appears to be random, given that the retired man living at the apartment listed in the tax records for “Sokolov” says he’s never heard of anyone named Sokolov. Further suggesting that he faked his paperwork, “Vadim Sokolov” listed a St. Petersburg residence in his European visa application, and journalists found no evidence that he ever lived there, either.

The investigative journalists also obtained a copy of the visa application “Sokolov” submitted to France’s Russian consulate, where he claimed to work for a construction company called “Rust.” Consular officials say they verified this information, but “Rust” owner Vladimir Ershov told The Insider that he’s never heard of Sokolov, and he says his business is currently being liquidated. Ershov promised to check with his accounting office if he ever employed anyone named Sokolov, but he then stopped responding to phone calls.

Journalists note that “Rust” shares an office phone number with the company “Oboronenergo,” which belongs to Russia’s Defense Ministry and supplies electricity to various state agencies.

New details about the foreign travels of “Mr. Sokolov,” and how he may have acquired the murder weapon in Warsaw

On September 10, The Wall Street Journal reported that three different countries are involved in Khangoshvili’s murder investigation: Germany, France, and Poland. “Sokolov” allegedly visited these three nations, after leaving Russia. An unnamed U.S. federal official told the newspaper that the killer was in Paris and Warsaw, before arriving in Berlin. “Sokolov” spent several days in the Polish capital, staying at a hotel. He left his personal belongings in the hotel room, apparently planning to return there, after killing Khangoshvili in Germany, another source in Poland told The Wall Street Journal.

The Insider, Bellingcat, and partner outlets say “Sokolov” left behind his Russian SIM card, which Polish and Germany law-enforcement officials are now examining. It’s also possible that “Sokolov” acquired the handgun he used to kill Khangoshvili in Berlin: a Glock pistol.

For more about the leaked databases that fuel this kind of investigative reporting in Russia

Summary by Olga Korelina

Translation by Kevin Rothrock