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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Targets Reporter, Secret Source

Vadim Belykh popped by his sixth floor office in the Izvestia building on Pushkin Square one recent Saturday afternoon and found a stack of notebooks missing from his desk.

This was nothing unusual in an office which on a recent visit looked stricken by a paper and newsprint tidal wave. Except, come Monday morning, the notebooks were back on his desk.

Belykh, Izvestia's star muckraking journalist, is playing cat and mouse with the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Last spring an FSB analyst gave him a top secret study of the Chechen rebels' financial pipeline, the details of which he published.

After months of denying such a document existed, in October the FSB changed its tack, initiating a criminal investigation for revealing state secrets. Belykh could be arrested if he refuses to reveal his source. Those familiar with the case say the FSB has two objectives: To catch and punish their leak and to intimidate the Russian journalistic community.

"Let's call it program maximum and minimum," said Belykh. "They say they want to find my source and sit him in jail for five to eight years. And the maximum program ... maybe prosecute me and teach a lesson to the mass media."

In a discussion of who benefits financially from the conflict in Chechnya -- much debated among Moscow's political cognoscenti, with allegations flying every which way -- Belykh's article is one of the few pieces of non-anecdotal evidence. And now the FSB's investigation adds credence to his expos?.

On the Thursday following the notebook incident, Belykh was called into the FSB's Investigations Division on Prospekt Mira. Evidently, they had not found what they wanted lying on his desk. Returning to his office, he says, it was obvious he was being tailed by undercover agents driving Zhiguli sedans.

He refused to disclose his source, although the FSB hinted he may be subjected to what he termed a "campaign of psychological pressure."

Izvestia's chief counsel, Max Khazin, said he has hidden the original documents in "a safe place ... In any case, they are not in my desk drawer." Khazin believes the FSB has little legal recourse to force Belykh to reveal his source. Belykh agreed, but noted that the letter of the law is not always a shield to hide behind.

An FSB spokesman confirmed that the service began a criminal investigation in response to Belykh's article in October, but declined further comment. The article, a six column spread on page two titled "The Second Front in the Caucasian War" was published May 12. The FSB spokesman did not comment on the long delay in responding.

Citing the FSB's secret documents in every paragraph of the article, Belykh described the rebels' financial network: Wealthy Islamic groups in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East transferred money to a web of Chechen controlled Russian or Azerbaijani banks. From there, shadowy middlemen -- named in the article as, for example, "Mr. M.A. of Baku, a businessman" -- or daredevil couriers carried suitcases of cash into the war zone, usually through Dagestan. This money was then used to pay mercenaries' salaries and buy weapons.

The FSB study, as reported by Belykh, also points to local extortion and kidnapping rackets in Chechnya, and some smuggling of crude oil as a financial resource for the rebels' war effort.

What concerned the FSB, said Belykh, was not this general picture, which is well known, but the detail. Some 23 Moscow banks are listed by name in the article. So are 16 foreign organizations that allegedly patronize the rebel cause, mostly based in the Middle East, but it also includes the Ukrainian political party Rukh and nationalist groups in Belarus and the Baltic states.

One of the banks listed, Gagarinsky Bank, has filed a civil suit against Izvestia, demanding the newspaper print a correction, according to Oleg Yanushonok, a manager at the bank. Several Middle East embassies also called the newspaper to protest.

Nikolai Bodnaruk, political editor at Izvestia, said that before the paper published the FSB information the editorial staff held a meeting to carefully consider the motives of Belykh's source. Several theories arose.

This man could have released the 12 page report, with "Top Secret" written on every page, as a move in a power play within the secret services, hoping to embarrass the man in charge of the report, or get him fired or arrested.

Another motive discussed concerned "financial blackmail." This theory held that groups within the FSB patronize certain financial interests and, logically, try to discredit their competitors.

Belykh believes his source released the report in the hope that its publication would force authorities to act on the information and clamp down on this illegal financial pipeline. In releasing the document, the source risked a five to eight year prison sentence. He trusted Belykh to protect him.

In any case, said Belykh, the only official response thus far has been the FSB's attempts to plug its leak and punish the messenger. The case could set a precedent. "Our colleagues are all watching," said Belykh. "[The FSB] may find a way to punish the journalists in such cases. And the idea of a state secret is a wide open concept."