Sunday, July 06, 2008

Yury Shchekochikhin and the Three Whales

"Writing all this, I feel like a second-grade student who keeps repeating the same lesson. How long can one write about the same thing?"---Yury Shchekochikhin in Novaya gazeta (6-2-03), one month before his death five years ago on 7-3-03

Here is the glitsy site of the Three Whales (Tri Kita) furniture company. I have posted about this furniture company in connection with what commentators have described as the unexplained death of veteran Russian investigative reporter Yury Shchekochikhin (site search).

Yury was deputy editor at Novaya gazeta and the deputy head of the State Duma's Security Committee. The Duma is the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia.

[Search Щекочихин at Novaya gazeta; at Google; and Rambler.]

Shortly before he died, Yury had spoken with the FBI in Russia about his investigations and had obtained a visa to come to the U.S. where he hoped to testify at the money-laundering trial of the Bank of New York (BoNY).

RFE/RL (7-16-03) commented on events just prior to Yury's July 3, 2003 death:

In May 2003, Sergei Pereverzev, president of the Furniture Business Association, was killed a few days before he could testify in court against the owners of Tri Kita and in favor of two GTK officials who were also being accused of abuse of power. Pereverzev was murdered in his hospital room following a serious car accident that he had managed to survive. A month earlier -- on 2 April, in an interview with "Moskovskii Komsomolets," Pereverzev said that he had been threatened. Finally, the judge in charge of the GTK officials' case was also threatened. He received a letter containing a death threat that Shchekochikhin showed on the independent TVS television channel on 4 June 2003.

The St. Petersburg Times (7-4-08) has published an article about the scandal surrounding the Three Whales in connection with the five-year anniversary of the death of Yury Shchekochikhin:

Five years on, the circumstances surrounding the death of Yury Shchekochikhin, a liberal State Duma deputy and one of the country’s most fearless investigative journalists, remain an enigma.

Shchekochikhin, who penned exposes of official corruption for Novaya Gazeta, died five years ago Thursday at the age of 53 after several days of intense fever, during which his hair fell out and his skin peeled away in layers.

..[H]is friends and colleagues remain convinced that he was poisoned because of his work.

“I understand why,” said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a press freedom watchdog. “Shchekochikhin was the first person who unveiled and called public attention to what was then an under-the-carpet war between top law enforcement and secret services officials.” [Panfilov is interviewed about the pitfalls of reporting the news in Russia here.]

At the time of his death, Shchekochikhin was investigating the purported involvement of senior officials from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and the Prosecutor General’s Office in Tri Kita, a Moscow furniture store accused of evading import duties and smuggling Chinese goods through FSB [state security, formerly called the KGB] storage facilities.

His Novaya Gazeta colleagues have claimed that shortly before his death, Shchekochikhin, who was deputy head of the State Duma’s Security Committee, had obtained evidence that the smuggling case was connected to money laundering through the Bank of New York and illegal weapons trafficking.

He had also accused three deputy prosecutor generals — Yury Biryukov, Vasily Kolmogorov and Vladimir Kolesnikov — of protecting the purported smugglers and pressed the Duma’s anti-corruption committee to demand their dismissals.

...Investigators have closed three separate probes into the death of Shchekochikhin, who shot to national fame during perestroika for a series of reports on organized crime in the Soviet Union.

A fourth probe — aimed at establishing whether Shchekochikhin was murdered or died accidentally from a severe allergic reaction to a stray chemical agent — was opened in late March on the orders of Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin.

Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin declined to comment on the progress of the probe, citing the ongoing investigation.

Created last year as a semiautonomous body under the auspices of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee — which is handling the new Shchekochikhin investigation — has taken over many of the investigative powers formerly held by the prosecutor general.

Bastrykin and Prosecutor General Yury Chaika have publicly sparred over a number of high-profile cases in a standoff that many observers believe is closely connected with a battle for influence between powerful, competing clans with links to security services and that are close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergei Sokolov, who said he and his colleagues believe that Shchekochikhin was poisoned, expressed reserved optimism at the new probe.

“All I can tell you now is that investigators are intensively on the case,” said Sokolov, the newspaper’s point man for its own investigations into Shchekochikhin’s death and the 2006 slaying of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya. “But what we greatly fear is that this probe will be used in the war between the clans in the security services.”

The current probe is strictly to establish whether Shchekochikhin was in fact poisoned, Sokolov said.

Identifying the motive and possible suspects in the case of foul play would be part of a separate investigation, he said.

...Panfilov said he doubted that the latest probe would produce any new conclusions.

Senior officials would likely be key suspects, and investigators would be loathed to challenge them, he said.

Panfilov added that he was skeptical at first that Shchekochikhin had been poisoned. “I thought that poisoning would be a too exotic way to get rid of Yura,” he said.

But after Politkovskaya claimed that she was poisoned on her way to Beslan during the September 2004 hostage crisis, and after the 2006 poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in Britain, “I started believing that the security services could pull this off,” Panfilov said.

...Shchekochikhin was working on around 10 high-profile corruption cases when he died, Sokolov said.

The most scandalous of those was the smuggling case involving Tri Kita, which is currently being tried in a court in the Moscow region town of Narofominsk.

Nine businessmen, including Tri Kita owner Sergei Zuyev, stand accused of evading import duties and other taxes to the tune of 18 million rubles ($760,000), according to prosecutors and Zuyev’s lawyer, Kirill Polishchuk.

That sum is considerably less than the $2 million bribe that, according to court testimony by senior Interior Ministry investigator Viktor Tsymbal, Tri Kita paid to prosecutors in exchange for calling off the probe in 2002.

None of the deputy prosecutor generals that Shchekochikhin demanded be fired is currently working in the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Biryukov is now a senator representing the Nenets autonomous district in the Federation Council, while Kolmogorov works as an adviser to the president of state-owned bank VTB.

Kolesnikov currently represents pro-Kremlin party United Russia in the Duma, where he is deputy head of the commission for anti-corruption legislation. [Full text]

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