Mystery Shrouds Shchekochikhin's Death

YablokoJournalist and Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin attending a Yabloko conference in 2002, a year before his death.
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.

The official diagnosis showed that Shchekochikhin died from Lyell's syndrome, also known as Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a grave dermatological condition often caused by an allergic reaction.

There was no indication in the medical report of what chemical or biological agent might have cause the allergic reaction. But his 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."

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 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.

In the months before his death, Shchekochikhin was constantly accompanied by a bodyguard and was receiving threatening anonymous notes and phone calls, said Panfilov, a close friend of Shchekochikhin's.

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.

Officials at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow, where Shchekochikhin died after 12 days of treatment, have refused to issue the death certificate to his family members and did not allow his son to take tissue samples to be submitted for independent analysis.

Novaya Gazeta has repeatedly stated that some of the doctors who treated Shchekochikhin there told the newspaper's reporters — off the record — that he was poisoned.

None of those doctors works at the hospital anymore, the newspaper reported last month.

Central Clinical Hospital head Anatoly Brontvein declined to comment for this report.

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.

Nadezhda Azhikina, Shchekochikhin's ex-wife, said Wednesday that there would be no formal events to commemorate him on the fifth anniversary of his death.

"Only close friends will gather Thursday evening at his dacha in Peredelkino, outside Moscow," Azhikina said.

Shchekochikhin's two sons live in Moscow: One is a journalist, while the other is studying medicine.

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.