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‘Meduza’ answers questions about its investigation into alleged murder committed by multiple Network case defendants

Source: Meduza

On Friday, February 21, Meduza published the original Russian-language version of an article about homicide allegations against certain defendants named in the Penza Network case. Alexey Poltavets, a leftist activist who knows many of the defendants and is now living abroad, confessed to Meduza that he participated in this crime. Other evidence and case materials studied by Meduza do not contradict Poltavets’s claims. These very serious accusations, which Russian law enforcement should obviously investigate, do not in any way negate the civic campaign in support of the Network case defendants, who were tortured into confessing to bogus terrorism charges. Meduza’s story nevertheless upset many activists and caused a controversy within Russia’s journalistic community. In the text below, we respond to the main questions about our investigative report.

You found out about this story from someone named Ilya. Did you really base this investigative report on a single source?

Information from Ilya Khesin, who turned to Meduza in February 2020, was indeed the starting point for our investigative report. But we also independently studied the Network case materials, spoke to the defendants’ friends, acquaintances, and relatives, and talked to the parents of Artyom Dorofeyev, who was killed, and Katya Levchenko, who went missing. Additionally, we located people who provided shelter to multiple Penza activists on the run from law enforcement and collected information about what happened during this time. Meduza also interviewed members of law enforcement with ties to the criminal investigation. Finally (and most importantly), in a conversation with Meduza, Alexey Poltavets confessed to involvement in the murder. He did this publicly through our reporting and not in private conversations with his loved ones.

In his own words, Ilya Khesin says he was initially an active participant in the movement to support the Network case suspects. Khesin stresses that he is a “centrist,” not a leftist or a right-winger. For roughly six months, Khesin dated Dmitry Pchelintsev’s ex-wife, Angelina. We do not know if this relationship influenced his attitude about the Network case, but we acknowledge that it was an omission not to indicate this in our investigation. For his part, Khesin says he remains on good terms with other defendants in the Network case.

In early 2019, after learning that Artyom Dorofeyev had been killed, Ilya Khesin and Sasha Askyonova (who is married to Network case suspect Viktor Filinkov) started studying the case materials and came to the conclusion that the circumstances of Dorofeyev’s death raise certain questions. In the spring of 2019, Ilya and Sasha brought their findings to several journalists, but no investigative reporting followed. Meduza only learned about these allegations in February 2020, after the Network case suspects in Penza received their prison sentences.

Why do you believe what Poltavets says? Is a confession the queen of evidence for you?

Meduza doesn’t endorse the version of events presented by Alexey Poltavets, but we believe it cannot be ignored, most importantly because his claims do not contradict other data we managed to collect. Poltavets didn’t approach us himself — we sought him out and managed to speak to him. He has no obvious motives to incriminate himself or others. In the Network case materials, he appears only as a witness to attempted drug dealing by Mikhail Kulkov and Maxim Ivankin. Poltavets is currently located abroad and beyond the reach of law-enforcement agencies in Russia. State investigators in the Ryazan region, moreover, have not named him as a possible accessory to the murder of Artyom Dorofeyev. It’s only because of his comments to Meduza, in fact, that he could face criminal prosecution.

Before he agreed to speak on the record, Poltavets described multiple events, as well as his participation in these supposed events, in great detail. After several long discussions, he agreed to the publication of the information with him identified as its source. Meduza knows the details of his version of events and we plan to publish further reporting about this.

It’s said that Artyom was struck by a blunt object, but Poltavets claims he was shot in the head. So Poltavets must be lying?

According to a report issued by the Investigative Committee, a man’s body was discovered outside Ryazan (forensics later determined that this was Artyom Dorofeyev) with a “multi-fragmented splintered fracture of the facial bones” and injuries to the left parietal region and front of the neck. A forensic medical expert who works for the Moscow regional authorities and asked not to be named told Meduza that a “blunt solid object” is usually listed as the cause of injuries in cases like this.

“If the shot came from a smoothbore weapon, pieces of [buckshot] should have remained in the skull,” explained Meduza’s source. “But maybe they didn’t. It could be that there was just soft-tissue damage with the destruction of the cranium that didn’t cause death because there was no penetration to the brain. All the more likely, if there was a slash across the neck.”

Why didn’t you call the Network case defendants’ lawyers or give the jailed suspects’ relatives a chance to speak on their behalf?

Meduza’s report featured comments from Dmitry Pchelintsev’s mother, Svetlana, who expresses her certainty that her son is incapable of murder and says she believes Ilya Khesin is either mentally unbalanced or cooperating with the FSB. A few days before Meduza published its report, we reached out to Maxim Ivankin’s wife, Anna Shalunkina, but she did not respond to our calls and messages. Ivankin’s mother, his attorney, Konstantin Kartashov, and the legal association where Kartashov works all ignored Meduza’s calls. We did not contact Dmitry Pchelintsev’s lawyer and Meduza acknowledges this mistake.

The defendants’ relatives and lawyers knew we were preparing an investigative report about the possible involvement of some Penza Network case suspects in a homicide. This awareness might be why many people we tried to reach did not respond to our calls and messages, but we cannot confirm this.

On Tuesday, February 25, 2020, the attorneys of several Network case suspects granted an interview to the newspaper Kommersant, where Pchelintsev’s lawyer, Oksana Markeeva, argued that the Russian authorities would have prosecuted her client immediately “if investigators had even the slightest hint that these guys were somehow involved [in a murder.]” The Network case defendants have promised to issue a collective statement.

But a murder case would be a gold mine for the FSB. Obviously, they investigated these allegations and concluded that they were unfounded.

The Federal Security Service would have needed to merge its terrorism case with the murder case, which belonged to the Investigative Committee. To do this, FSB agents would have had to involve the prosecutor’s office to determine the case’s jurisdiction. At a minimum, this would have slowed the FSB’s own investigation. By the time Artyom Dorofeyev’s body was identified in February 2019, the Network terrorism case was already headed to trial.

But why wasn’t the FSB interested in a possible murder that involved its own suspects? “There could be completely different reasons,” says Andrey Grivtsov, a lawyer and a former detective in the Investigative Committee’s Central Directorate. “It could be that some of the case materials are classified. It could be that FSB investigators actually feared the case might be taken away from them to merge it with another one, and they wanted to complete the investigation themselves, and there was commonplace sloppiness and some kind of conceptual consensus that certain facts should be concealed.”

“The first explanation [for why the FSB didn’t pursue murder allegations] is that they didn’t have the evidence. The second explanation is that murder cases grant defendants the right to a trial by jury. The terrorism charges might have ‘slipped out’ like this, too, but a terrorism case couldn’t be allowed to go to a jury,” says Maxim Pashkov, an attorney now defending “New Greatness” defendant Maria Dubovik.

After forensics experts identified Artyom Dorofeyev’s remains, state investigators in the Ryazan region spoke to Network case defendants Mikhail Kulkov and Maxim Ivankin. Kulkov agreed to provide the authorities with DNA samples, but Ivankin refused. “They simply declined some [investigative] measures because they had the right [to do so],” a source in Ryazan’s Investigative Committee branch told Meduza. State investigators have the authority to take DNA samples from the defendants without their consent, but for some reason they declined to do so with Ivankin. 

The same source told Meduza that investigators in Ryazan also raised questions about a murder case with the Investigative Committee in Penza and the FSB, but these colleagues said they had “nothing interesting” to share regarding the case. In other words, the Federal Security Service was aware that a man who was friends with several of the Network case suspects and who shared an apartment with them was killed while these suspects were on the run from the law, and the FSB knew that this man’s girlfriend disappeared at the same time. Suspiciously, the agency decided to do nothing with this information.

According to attorney Maxim Pashkov, if the Network case suspects committed a murder, law-enforcement agencies were required “to make every effort to bring the perpetrators to justice and transfer the case to a court for a fair trial, including a trial by jury.”

Didn’t you speak to the state investigators overseeing the murder case? What’s going on there?

We contacted the state investigator who is looking into Artyom Dorofeyev’s murder, but he refused to talk on the record and asked Meduza to speak to the Investigative Committee’s Media Relations Department about permitting an interview. The agency’s representatives never responded.

In Meduza’s next feature story about this case, we will try to convey the state investigators’ position more fully. Readers should know that we also relied on sources inside the Investigative Committee when writing our initial report. These sources told Meduza that Artyom Dorofeyev’s murder case is still open. Following our reporting, state investigators visited and questioned Katya Levchenko’s parents. 

Why did you rush to publish this story?

We wanted to publish the story as soon as possible because of the enormous public significance of the version of events presented in the article. It is our view that concealing facts and circumstances allows Russia’s security services to continue the rigged Network case instead of investigating a potential and far more plausible crime. At the same time, after beginning our investigation of these allegations, we discovered that speculation about a potential murder has circulated not just in Russia’s Antifa community but also among journalists. In fact, these very serious charges have been discussed privately for a long time and deliberately kept from the public. 

Meduza also received advance notice that Katya Levchenko’s parents planned at the beginning of this week to ask local prosecutors to investigate the Network case suspects for involvement in their daughter’s disappearance, which means the allegations would have become public in any event. With these events in motion, given the importance of the issue, we determined that the public should have access to the evidence and facts we had managed to collect by that time. This includes Alexey Poltavets’s confession.

Text by Maxim Solopov, Kristina Safonova, Dmitry Kartsev, and Denis Dmitriev with assistance from Ivan Kolpakov and Tatyana Ershova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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