‘He knew the killer by his eyes’ The evidence that locked up Khabarovsk’s governor
On September 10, a Moscow court moved Nikolai Mistryukov to house arrest. A key witness in the case against former Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal, Mistryukov has reportedly agreed to a plea bargain with investigators. The case has been ongoing for more than a year, but officials have yet to reveal what evidence they have against Furgal, who was arrested this summer and booted from office on charges of orchestrating multiple contract killings roughly 15 years ago. Meduza explores what little is known about the case materials and who might have provided the testimony needed to lock him up.
“A fair trial in Khabarovsk” is one of the main demands Furgal’s former constituents have advocated at protests since his arrest in early July 2020. Demonstrators also want the trial heard by a jury and opened to the public. Instead, Moscow courts have conducted all pretial proceedings behind closed doors, all at the request of state investigators. As a result, it remains unclear exactly what evidence has been provided to justify locking up Furgal in pretrial detention.
Fifteen years ago, police accused Sergey Furgal of ordering contract killings and at least one attempted murder. In the spring of 2019 (about six months after Furgal unexpectedly defeated the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in Khabarovsk’s gubernatorial election), federal investigators reopened these murder cases. A year later, they arrested him and President Putin quickly replaced him.
Sergey Furgal is now jailed in Moscow, where his pretrial detention was recently extended to December 9. The former governor has said he believes the case against him is politically motivated. On September 13, Furgal did not report for a meeting with human rights monitors for the first time since he landed in jail. According to Eva Merkacheva, a journalist and a member of the public monitoring commission meant to have met with him, Furgal told her at their previous meeting that it would mean something had happened to him, if he failed to show up to their next scheduled meeting. Furgal said later in court that state investigators threatened to jail both his wife and their adopted daughter.
The charges against Furgal are based on testimony from his former business partner, Nikolai Mistryukov, sources told the newspaper Kommersant and the news agency TASS. Mistryukov spent nearly six months in jail, where he went half-blind and was diagnosed with cancer, before implicating Furgal in the homicides. Sources told TASS that he ultimately struck a deal with officials that allowed his transfer to house arrest on September 10.
All this time, Mistryukov persistently turned away the lawyers hired by his wife. Alexey Ulyanov at the bar association “Law and Man” has served as his defense attorney since his arrest. A source with knowledge about the case told Meduza that Ulyanov also facilitated Mistryukov’s testimony against Furgal, based on discussion during a closed court session. It remains unclear, however, if Mistryukov agreed to name Furgal as the one who actually ordered multiple contract killings. Every lawyer working on the case is currently subject to a gag order, but Meduza was able to uncover some information about the evidence investigators have assembled against Sergey Furgal.
A witness with a rap sheet
A source with ties to the investigation told Meduza that the former governor stated in a closed hearing on September 3 that prosecutors’ evidence is limited to testimony from Nikolai Mistryukov and an ex-cop in Khabarovsk jailed until recently for extortion (who was released on parole before cooperating with detectives working the Furgal case).
The first testimony submitted in the case and still the basis for the renewed investigation came from Vladimir Pershin, whose name also appears in a number of files accessible on the Moscow City Court’s website.
A source who worked on the Khabarovsk police force from the 1990s to the early 2000s confirmed to Meduza that the department did in fact employ a detective by this name. “In the mid-1990s, he went into commerce and then returned to law enforcement, but by then he was already a different person. It was clear that commercial interests were the most important thing to him,” Pershin’s former colleague recalled. He didn’t protect the “Moiseyevsky” gang, which the investigation has allegedly connected to Furgal. Meduza’s source said the Moiseyevsky group’s connections were higher up — supposedly in the Federal Security Service. In July 2016, Vladimir Pershin was sentenced to 4.5 years in a maximum security prison for extorting 3 million rubles ($39,690) from Gennady Kapilevich, the mayor of Mirnoye.
Pershin testified about the murders on July 3, 2019, after he was released early from prison. His questioning took place at a hotel in Khabarovsk, a source familiar with the investigation told Meduza. At a closed hearing, Sergey Furgal connected Pershin’s bail to the case against him.
According to another source familiar with the investigation, Pershin testified that he overheard Mistryukov and Furgal discussing the contract killing in an office room 15 years ago. Another source told Meduza that Pershin claimed to overhear Mistryukov and Furgal hire Andrey Karepov to carry out the murders. Pershin’s testimony served as the basis for Nikolai Mistryukov’s arrest in November 2019, which subsequently led to the evidence used to arrest Governor Furgal himself.
A witness without protection
Sixty-year-old Nikolai Mistryukov, a former deputy in the Khabarovsk regional legislature who controls 25 percent of the steel plant “Amurstal,” was arrested on November 19, 2019, in Vladivostok, while in town to receive treatment for a detached retina that required constant medical supervision.
After his arrest, Mistryukov was transferred to the “Lefortovo” prison in Moscow, where he was charged with organizing the contract killings of businessmen Evgeny Zorya and Oleg Bulatov, and the attempted murder of Alexander Smolensky.
Furgal’s ex-wife, Larisa Starodubova, and Mistryukov each owned a quarter of the electric steel plant “Amurstal” through a stake in the companies “Torex-Khabarovsk” and “Torex.” Moscow businessman Pavel Balsky, who reportedly has ties to the billionaire Arkady Rotenberg (President Putin’s old Judo sparring partner), controlled the other half of the company.
Representatives for Rotenberg deny that he has any interest in Amurstal or any kind of business relationship with Balsky.
Sergey Furgal has reportedly said in court that he believes the case against him is connected to the steel plant, claiming that Balsky sought total control. A source close to the former governor told Meduza that Furgal “didn’t make a fuss” when Mistryukov was arrested because he hoped it would “be decided upstairs.” According to Senator Sergey Bezdenezhny, a fellow LDPR party member, Mistryukov was always “very calm, never raised his voice, and had a reputation for being a respectable person.” “He always said, ‘Production is my business,’” says Bezdenezhny.
Until November 25, the detention center allowed a lawyer hired by Mistryukov’s family, Edward Churguliya, to visit him. During his arraignment hearing and at his first several interrogations, with Churguliya still at his side, Mistryukov maintained his own innocence. On November 26, however, state investigator Yuri Burtovoi informed Churguliya that Mistryukov no longer desired his legal representation. “The lawyer was inconvenient to the investigation,” a Mistryukov family friend told Meduza.
From this moment on, Mistryukov rejected every lawyer his wife Natalya hired, attributing the change of heart to conversations with officials. “[The investigator] convinced me that I didn’t need a lawyer. It was all too much for me,” Mistryukov later told a visiting human rights observer.
According to a source with knowledge of the case, prosecutors at a recent hearing to extend Furgal’s arrest mentioned testimony given on November 29 by Nikolai Mistryukov about Furgal’s alleged involvement in the contract killings. The content of his statement was not read aloud in court, however. Mistryukov previously testified in alongside his lawyer, Alexey Ulyanov, without any other defense attorneys present, a source familiar with the investigation told Meduza.
Ulyanov says he was simply “walking past the investigator’s office by chance” when he was invited in to serve as Mistryukov’s legal counsel, says a source close to Mistryukov’s family.
Two lawyers who have encountered Ulyanov in court describe him as a defense attorney who cooperates closely with state investigators. In other words, he has the same reputation associated with public defenders until 2018, when Russia introduced an electronic system to provide defense attorneys at random.
“The system was created to exclude prosecutors’ so-called pocket-lawyer, corrupt yes-men attorneys who work on behalf of the investigators not the defendant,” argues Dmitry Gerasimov, an attorney with the “Zona Prava” human rights project. “So instead they’ve started bringing in these yes-men lawyers on contracts where the investigator simply recommends the right lawyer to the defendant.”
To learn more about Ulyanov’s work methods, Meduza spoke to the family of one of his old clients, former Udmurtia Mayor Alexander Solovyov.
“If you don’t sign, things will only get worse for you”
“What is Alexey Ulyanov? He’s an appointed attorney — one who works closely with the Investigative Committee,” says Evgeniya Sirik, the daughter of Alexander Solovyov, Udmurtia’s former mayor, who was accused of soliciting bribes. She says the first thing Ulyanov did as her father’s attorney was deny his family visitation for two weeks.
While this went on, he told Solovyov that his family had abandoned him and convinced him to plead guilty to the charges, says Sirik. “Ulyanov told him: ‘Mr. Solovyov, you need to sign this. If you don’t sign, that’s it for you.’ There were threats that, if you don’t sign, things will only get worse for you — right down to your family and your physical wellbeing. [Ulyanov said] he couldn’t help medically — he couldn’t help with his blood pressure [Solovyov is 70 years old, suffers from diabetes and cancer, and is missing a kidney]. If you sign you’ll get certain benefits, he said. In the end, he said, ‘If you take all the blame, then you’ll be put under house arrest.” And [Solovyov] pled guilty,” says Sirik.
Two months after his confession, Solovyov was indeed moved to house arrest. He still can’t explain what exactly happened to him in prison — he simply can’t recall half of what took place. From the very start of his pretrial detention, he didn’t get all the medicine he needed, and he suffered from high blood pressure. In court, Solovyov complained of headaches. He was administered painkillers, but they wore off after an hour, his daughter said. This continued for more than a month.
Although Ulyanov was originally Solovyov’s appointed attorney, the two signed a retroactive contract just before Ulyanov was moved to house arrest, changing the lawyer’s status from public defender to privately contracted attorney. Ulyanov valued his monthly services at 160,000 roubles ($2,115) and billed Solovyov for 1.3 million rubles ($17,175) in legal fees. Solovyov also signed a document stating that he had no claims against the attorney and verified that all services were rendered in full, says Evgeniya Sirik. Ulyanov is now suing to collect his fees. Solovyov subsequently recanted his confession in the bribery case, but the court says it cannot ignore what he admitted previously, given that he made those statements in the presence of his lawyer.
Alexey Ulyanov did not respond to Meduza’s phone calls or messages.
A homemaker and small children
Officials have also sought to pressure Nikolai Mistryukov by targeting his status as his family’s breadwinner. In November 2019, when Churguliya (the lawyer initially hired by Mistryukov’s wife) was still allowed to visit, Mistryukov asked him to look into the possibility of selling his stake in Amurstal to Balsky. “He figured he only has five years maximum left to live, and his wife, Natalya, had always been a homemaker. He wanted to take care of her,” says a person who was in contact with the Mistryukov family at that time. The Mistryukovs also have three small children. When Mistryukov was diagnosed with pelvic cancer while in prison, the situation became even more complicated.
After Mistryukov turned Churguliya away, investigators not only allowed but actually facilitated the sale of Mistryukov’s Amurstal shares, even though his assets should have been frozen, Furgal argued in court, a source told Meduza. When the police arrested him, after all, they almost immediately seized his cash funds and two cars registered in his name. As a result, his family couldn’t afford a defense attorney and supporters had to raise the money through crowdsourcing.
In late December 2019, Natalya Mistryukova went to Balsky’s office with Churguliya to negotiate the sale of her husband’s stake. At the meeting, Balsky told her that he was sympathetic but unable to help with the criminal case. He was nevertheless very interested in buying her Amurstal shares, says a Mistryukov family friend. The current CEO of Amurstal, Grigory Freidin, confirmed to Meduza that this meeting took place.
Acting as Nikolai Mistryukov’s legal proxy, his wife signed over his stake in January 2020. Grigory Freidin was evasive when asked about the money involved in the deal: “I can’t tell you, but the total was definitely considerable.” In reality, Natalya Mistryukova sold 25 percent of Amurstal to Balsky for 350 million rubles ($4.6 million), receiving 50 million ($660,500) up front and agreeing to get the remainder in installments (according to the arbitration claims submitted by Amurstal co-owner Larisa Starodubova and based on comments by former Amurstal director Sergey Kuznetsov to the police, say two friends of the Mistryukins).
Balsky’s 350 million rubles bought him another quarter (and hence a controlling stake) in a company that earned 22 million rubles ($290,600) in 2019 alone. Court documents show that Larisa Starodubova believed her 25-percent share was worth 967 million rubles ($12.8 million) in March 2020 when she offered a sale to Balsky, who refused to buy at that price.
Other accusations in the Furgal case
The same day police arrested Mistryukov, officers took another three suspects into custody: Marat Kadyrov, Andrey Paley, and Andrey Karepov. All three men are accused of crimes in the case, but none has confessed.
According to state investigators, Kadyrov and Paley actually carried out the killings (as well as the attempted murder), while Kaperov organized everything, acting on Mistryukov’s orders.
Vladimir Pershin, the ex-cop now breathing fresh parole air, is the prosecution’s main witness against Kaperov. He allegedly heard from Kaperov that Mistryukov asked him to resolve an issue with Zorya, Bulatov, and Smolensky. Kaperov then allegedly hired two hitmen: Marat Kadyrov and Andrey Paley, a source close to the investigation told Meduza. “There is nothing against Kaperov in Mistryukov’s testimony,” says another source who participated in one of the court hearings. “There is also no evidence [against Kaperov] in any of the three episodes.” In August, Andrey Kaperov was attacked on his way to meet with state investigators. The assailants wore black masks without any identifying marks, according to a statement from Kaperov’s defense team. During the attack, they allegedly demanded that he testify against Furgal.
Marat Kadyrov is 51 years old. Before his arrest, he was an airport controller at the Mendeleevo Airport on Kunashir Island — a job he found after working as a massage therapist at a rehabilitation center for the disabled. According to state investigators, Kadyrov threw a live grenade into Alexander Smolensky’s garage in 2004, acting on orders from Nikolai Mistryukov (delivered by Andrey Kaperov).
Three witnesses, including Pershin, have reportedly testified against Kadyrov, a source told Meduza. One of these witnesses says he encountered a man not far from the explosion site whom he identified 15 years later in a photograph as Marat Kadyrov. Another witness saw a man throw “an unknown object” into Smolensky’s garage that exploded. Fifteen years later, she, too, identified this individual as Marat Kadyrov.
When someone tried to kill Alexander Smolensky, Marat Kadyrov was on probation for falsely reporting a terrorist attack. (Due to fraudulent behavior in 2003, he and his wife, along with their small child, lost their new apartment. When the police came to evict them, he threatened them with a plastic model of an explosive device.) Because he was on probation, Kadyrov couldn’t leave his place of residence in Khabarovsk and had to check in regularly with the local police. Therefore, Kadyrov argued during questioning, he couldn’t have been 300 miles away at Smolensky’s home, a source familiar with the case told Meduza.
Andrey Paley is 35 years old. Investigators say he murdered Evgeny Zorya and Oleg Bulatov when he was just 21. Officials have two witnesses against Paley: Vladimir Pershin (again) and another individual who supposedly recognized him 16 years later. The second witness allegedly saw Paley walking to the scene of the murder. Paley was wearing a hat and scarf, and so only his eyes were visible. The witness identified Paley by his eyes, a source with knowledge of the case told Meduza. The witness’s name also appears in case materials published on the Moscow City Court’s website.
Sergey Furgal has never complained about the conditions of his detention in Moscow, according to his lawyer, Elena Bestusheva. He apparently likes his cellmate (whom he won’t name) and says the man is an interesting, sociable, and good person. A source told the news agency TASS that Furgal is sharing a prison cell with Mikhail Abyzov, another former state official (Russia’s minister of Open Government Affairs from 2012 until 2018).
Boris Kozhemyankin, another attorney representing Furgal, declined to comment on these reports.