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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Chief and Reporter Killed in 2 Attacks

APPolice officers and journalists surrounding the bullet-ridden car of Gadzhi Abashilov, head of Dagestan's state television company, in Makhachkala late Friday.
The head of Dagestani state television and a Dagestan-born reporter for Channel One television died in brutal killings Friday that seemed to raise more questions about law and order than free speech.

Gunmen fired on a car carrying the head of state television company GTRK Dagestan, Gadzhi Abashilov, in a drive-by shooting Friday evening in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala. Hours earlier, in an apparently unrelated incident, Channel One reporter Ilyas Shurpayev was found stabbed and strangled with a belt in his Moscow apartment.

Media freedom groups regularly identify Russia as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work, and law enforcement officials said over the weekend that they were considering the possibility that both killings were connected to the men's work. But an independent media watchdog said Sunday that the deaths were probably the result of rampant crime rather than an attack on free speech.

Unknown gunmen fired on Abashilov's car as he traveled home from work in the Uzbekgorodok area of Makhachkala late Friday. He was killed instantly, while his 23-year-old driver, Akhmed Abakarov, was hospitalized in critical condition, RIA-Novosti reported.

Police found a semiautomatic machine gun, which they believe was the murder weapon, inside a car abandoned near the murder scene, Itar-Tass reported. The killers attempted to set fire to the car, which had stolen license plates, Kommersant reported Saturday.

Abashilov had worked for just over a year at GTRK Dagestan, a regional branch of the national television and radio company VGTRK. His predecessor, Tagib Abdusamadov, survived a murder attempt in 2004.

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said the case would be investigated from his office in Moscow.

Sergei Rasulov / AP
Gadzhi Abashilov
Investigators are examining several angles, but they believe that the killing was related to Abashilov's professional duties, a representative of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, said Saturday.

Rasul Khaibullayev, spokesman for Dagestan's president, Mukhu Aliyev, said Abashilov "was on the sharp end of an ideological battle" and that his name was included in lists of people to be shot on separatist web sites, Kommersant reported.

VGTRK general director Oleg Dobrodeyev called Abashilov "an uncompromising fighter against extremism and terrorism," RIA-Novosti reported.

Born in 1950, he began his career as a Komsomol activist. He then edited the Molodyozh Dagestana newspaper and served as the republic's deputy minister for information, national politics and external affairs. Dagestan's former information minister, Magomedsalikh Gusayev, was killed by a car bomb in 2003.

In northeastern Moscow, Channel One reporter Shurpayev was found murdered early Friday, his body mutilated and apartment set on fire. Shurpayev, a 32-year-old veteran reporter on conflicts in the North Caucasus, was discovered at his home at around 2 a.m. after a neighbor reported a fire in the apartment he rented, RIA-Novosti reported.

The Investigative Committee said in a statement that a murder investigation had been opened but declined further comment.

Interfax reported that Shurpayev had been stabbed several times and that a belt was around his throat when he was found. The fire was an attempt to conceal the crime, which likely involved the reporter's "personal affairs" rather than his work, the report said, citing an unidentified law enforcement official. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Shurpayev's body had been stripped naked.

Shurpayev previously worked for NTV television and moved to Moscow in February to work as a special correspondent for Channel One. A law enforcement source told RIA-Novosti that investigators were considering a possible connection with his reporting.

It appears that Shurpayev might have known his assailants. The reporter called down to the building's concierge from his apartment to ask that two young men resembling natives of the North Caucasus be let into the building shortly before he was killed, Interfax reported. Their faces have been captured on closed-circuit television, Kommersant said.

Channel One / Reuters
Channel One journalist Ilyas Shurpayev reporting from an unknown location in an image provided by his employer.
A laptop computer, a kitchen knife and Shurpayev's membership card in the Union of Russian Journalists were missing from his apartment, Interfax said.

Shurpayev is survived by his wife and 5-year-old daughter, Channel One said. He was living alone in the apartment.

"He very often put himself, for his work, right onto the battlefield," the channel statement said in a statement on its web site. "We are grieving and we express our deepest condolences to his family."

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an independent media watchdog, said he was a friend of Shurpayev's and thought it unlikely that his death was related to his work.

"He was never involved in any kind of aggressive journalism," Panfilov said. "When he went to Chechnya and Beslan, for example, his reporting was very balanced and fair."

The two murders are not likely to be related, Panfilov said. He speculated that Abashilov's death might have been organized by rivals. "I think it's simply the criminal situation in Dagestan, where a person can be killed because of his position, so that someone can occupy his post," he said.

Abashilov was known primarily as a government official, not as a journalist, and the newspaper which he previously edited, Molodyozh Dagestana, was "absolutely pro-government," Panfilov said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for a "vigorous and transparent investigation" into both killings.