Protesters Decry Assault on Editor

MTOleg Mitvol, speaking outside Chistiye Prudy metro station on Sunday in support of newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov, who was viciously beaten last month.
There are no witnesses to what happened to Mikhail Beketov when he returned home on the night of Nov. 13, but the beating that left him in a coma for two weeks must have been brutal.

Beketov, the owner and editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda, a local newspaper, was found by a neighbor more than 24 hours later, lying in a pool of his own blood outside his home in Khimki, a town just northwest of Moscow, with fractured limbs and severe frostbite.

"This was a result of his professional activities, because he did not have a comfortable relationship with the mayor's office," said Vladimir Kursa, his half-brother.

On Saturday and Sunday, more than 1,000 people gathered in Khimki and Moscow to protest the attack on Beketov, most of them pointing the finger at the administration of Khimki mayor Vladimir Strelchenko.

Oleg Mitvol, until recently a senior figure at of the country's environmental watchdog, agreed.

"Beketov is already the third editor to end up in intensive care," he told the more than 100 protesters gathered outside Chistiye Prudy metro station.

Mitvol, who in recent years has headed high-profile inquiries into oil and gas projects -- and been accused of targeting particular, often foreign, firms to help state-owned companies to get their way -- is currently battling against his superiors at the environmental agency, who say his former position of deputy director has been scrapped.

Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the liberal Yabloko party, told protesters that Beketov knew about the risks of his work.

"He was fighting against criminals -- and criminals in power," Mitrokhin said.

And those risks have been realized, as doctors at Moscow's Sklifosovsky Clinic have had to amputate Beketov's right leg after gangrene set in, and his fingers may soon follow.

Slivers of skull remain embedded in his brain, said Antonina Glushchai, his ex-wife.

Participants at Sunday's meeting, which was sanctioned by city authorities, carried banners reading "Khimki Administration -- Resign!" and calling the assault on Beketov an attack on freedom of speech.

Just a day before, protesters said, 1,000 people had come to a meeting in Khimki.

"The meeting was delayed by authorities repeatedly, but we finally were allowed to hold it in the town park," said Mikhail Matveyev, who was among the organizers.

He said Strelchenko briefly appeared but refused to answer questions.

"He came and went, escorted by police officers and bodyguards," Matveyev said.

Strelchenko has repeatedly denied any connection to the attack on Beketov or on anyone else and has said that the incident was an attempt to discredit him.

But critics maintain that Beketov was a "crucial figure" in community protests against the town administration's plan to build a giant new road through a forest reserve.

The M-10 toll expressway, running parallel to Leningradskoye Shosse, on its east side, is being built according to a federal plan to ease traffic along the route.

Strelchenko suggested that, because of its proximity to his town, the expressway should be diverted through the 1,000 hectare Khimki Forest Park, "so that the road doesn't pass through residential areas, where there are dachas and garden plots."

In April 2006, Boris Gromov, the governor of the Moscow region, authorized the route and further stated that 3,000 meters would be reserved on either side of the road for the construction of infrastructure and capital projects.

Gromov's authorization of a 6-kilometer swath through the forest will, in fact, allow for the destruction of the entire federal forest and the sale of expensive land for construction, opponents of the project say.

The whole project could turn into a real estate bonanza.

The road's status has put it in high demand for modern warehouses and production facilities seeking to distribute goods to Moscow's booming consumer market.

Around Khimki, land prices have exploded, being appraised at almost $1 million a hectare in recent months, said Pyotr Zaritsky, an associate director at real estate developer Jones Lang LaSalle.

"There is such a demand that those prices will always remain quite high," said Zaritsky. "This is one of the most expensive areas of development in Moscow, and has been for ages."

But according to the new Forest Code adopted in 2007, "land cannot be privatized when it is forested, but when the government converts it for other uses, it can be sold," said Igor Chestin, of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia.

After the corridor is deforested it ceases to be a federal property, and regional and local authorities would be able to sell and lease it, Mitvol said.

"It would be a nightmare if they built here," said Yury Lemish, 35, while out fetching spring water with his 3-year-old son, Ilya. "Of course we are against the construction. The infrastructure would ruin the environment.

"Everyone is against it. But, of course, no one listens to the people," said Lemish, who has lived his entire life on the edge of the forest.

This was not the first time Beketov had protested against the city government.

An April 2007 article in his paper decried the moving of graves of veterans of World War II.

In the story, he asked why Strelchenko was acting like a "bull in a china shop."

"It is time to realize that Khimki is not a garrison, and its residents are not soldiers," wrote Beketov.

Two months later Beketov's black Land Rover was burned in his driveway and, shortly after, his guard dog was killed.

In October, just weeks before he was assaulted, he accused the mayor of using a shady tender process to gain a loan to balance the city's budget from Vozrozhdeniye Bank, which is affiliated with the authorities. Although the bank agreed to the loan, the city ended up not taking it, bank spokeswoman Yulia Motovilova said.

Other local journalists have been targets of physical intimidation.

Anatoly Yurov, editor of Civil Consent, another local paper, has been assaulted by unidentified attackers three times in the past two years. In one attack he suffered 10 stab wounds, he told the Public Chamber on Tuesday.

Yurov said his paper "has expressed views different from those of the local authorities."

In 2006, Yury Granin, head of Civil Forum, a local nongovernmental organization, and Yury Slyusaryov, the organization's executive secretary who publishes a Khimki weekly under the same name, were also attacked, Granin said.

The newspaper was shut a year later, but this was not connected to the attacks, Granin said. He refused to elaborate.