Berlin Murder – New Intel On FSB Involvement Exposed

  • In a series of investigations in 2019 and 2020, Bellingcat, along with its investigative partners The Insider and Der Spiegel, identified the person suspected in the August 2019 assassination of Georgian asylum seeker Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin. The suspected assassin, who traveled to Berlin under the name of Vadim Sokolov, a Russian citizen, was arrested by Berlin police shortly after the killing and is currently on trial at the Berlin appellate court (Kammergericht).
  • Our initial investigation found that the passport on which the arrested suspect traveled was state-issued, but linked to an inauthentic identity; and that a man with the particulars of “Vadim Sokolov” did not exist in Russian registries prior to 2019. We concluded that this cover identity – which had obtained a full set of matching presence in all kinds of Russian registries, including the tax registry, in 2019 – could only have been issued by the Russian authorities.
  • Subsequently, we were able to match the suspect to the real identity of Vadim Krasikov, 56, a person whom Russian investigators placed on an international search in connection with a 2013 murder. The Interpol search warrant had been withdrawn in 2015. Our identification was based largely on geographically overlapping use of telephones used by “Vadim Sokolov” and Vadim Krasikov as well as on facial comparison of a black-and-white photograph of Krasikov to the arrest mugshots and visa application photos of “Vadim Sokolov”.
  • Based on analysis of telephone metadata, we found that prior to his trip to Berlin, Vadim Krasikov had been communicating intensively with members of the Vympel group of companies – comprised primarily of former FSB Spetsnaz officers – and had visited secure FSB training facilities in the immediate eve of his trip to Germany.
  • Largely in reliance of Bellingcat’s investigations, German prosecutors have indicted Vadim Krasikov as a killer who acted on behalf of the Russian state, and in particular the country’s security service – the FSB. The case is currently in trial phase at first-instance court in Berlin, and a verdict is expected in the first half of 2021. The prosecution believes that there is overwhelming forensic evidence that the detained suspect is in fact the assassin – including DNA match with items disposed of by the killer in the Spree river. However, the killing’s connection to Russian state largely hinges on the case that “Vadim Sokolov” and Vadim Krasikov are the same person. 
  • The accused maintains that his name is Vadim Sokolov, that he was a tourist in Berlin, and that he is not aware of a Vadim Krasikov. The defense lawyers argue that the evidence of identity of the two personas is inconclusive, and is based solely on a facial comparison.

New data freshly obtained by Ukrainian law enforcement and passed on to German investigators strongly supports the key premise of Bellingcat’s identification, and removes more or less any residual uncertainty that “Sokolov” and Krasikov are the same person. This data was obtained during a special operation of Ukrainian law enforcement in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and the hometown of Vadim Krasikov’s wife. According to sources of our investigative partner Spiegel, the new data has been passed to German law enforcement in the last few days. Spiegel obtained some of the documents and photographs from the new data set and shared them with Bellingcat.

Тhe new data includes photographs from what appears to be a 2010 wedding album of Vadim Krasikov and his current wife. They also include a marriage certificate, showing the husband’s name as “Vadim Krasikov”.

The color photographs, which have been reviewed by us, provide multiple new samples of Vadim Krasikov’s face from different perspectives, making a facial comparison significantly more reliable than by use of the original black-and-white photos that we previously obtained. The identity match using the new photographs in Microsoft’s Azure tool is even higher, with a matching factor of 0.88902 (this factor is very high given the 10 year difference between the photographs and the facial hair changes; similar comparisons using photos with a 10-year gap of the of the same person yield results between 0.75 and 0.9).

A screen grab of facial comparison results using the Microsoft Azure tool.

Crucially, the newly obtained collection of photographs includes an image of Vadim Krasikov sitting on a beach in a baseball cap and a tank top. Visible in the photograph is a large tattoo on his left shoulder. This tattoo is identical to the tattoo seen on the shoulder of “Vadim Sokolov”, from a police custody photograph obtained previously by the Dossier Center.

Left, a tattoo on the arm of Vadim Sokolov. Right, a picture of Vadim Krasikov.

The near-perfect match is not only based on the exact same pattern of the tattoo and its identical placement on the same spot on the left upper arm in both photographs. A close-up comparison of the skin under the tattoo shows multiple overlapping skin artefacts, such as freckles, moles and scars.

A comparison of tattoos detailed in pictures of Vadim Sokolov and Vadim Krasikov.

Importantly, the German indictment documents as well as a police file describing the arrested “Sokolov” refer to a second tattoo – of a snake – on his lower right arm. This is compatible with a tattoo partially visible on the lower right arm of Krasikov’s beach photo.

A second tattoo on the arm of Vadim Krasikov.

The new photographs provided by Ukrainian authorities to German prosecutors present a new set of data points that make the identification of the accused as Vadim Krasikov even more robust than before. Furthermore, they provide an important second independent source for this verification. Notably, many of the wedding album photographs show Krasikov in the presence of his wife, his parents and in-laws – thus linking the person from the photographs to the name of Vadim Krasikov that is seen in the marriage certificate.

New Indications of an FSB link

As reported in our previous investigations, in the months following the killing of Khangoshvili and the arrest of Vadim Krasikov, metadata of the telephone previously used by Krasikov shows that that number continued communicating with a burner number which had not called Krasikov before the Berlin trip.

Our working hypothesis was that following his departure, Krasikov’s number was used by his wife – this was corroborated by the geolocation data that showed the phone stayed within the home base of Krasikov’s apartment, and occasionally moved in sync with his wife’s phone number. Krasikov’s telephone moved in the direction of Domodedovo airport on 6 December 2019 and was turned off permanently at approximately noon on that day. Our assumption was that the burner number belonged to one of Krasikov’s supervisors from the Vympel group – Evgeny Eroshkin, a senior former FSB special operations officer.

By tracing the burner number’s geolocation on that day, we discovered that it also moved towards Domodedovo airport, and later that day reappeared in Simferopol – the main city and airport on the Crimean peninsula.

By analysing the flights between Domodedovo and Simferopol airports on that day, we were able to narrow down the potential flights to only one that matched the switch-off and switch-on times of the burner number. We then obtained the passenger manifest of this flight.

In the passenger list, we discovered, as we suspected, Evgeny Eroshkin – confirming our hypothesis that he was the owner of the burner number. We also identified two other passengers – appearing to be a woman and her daughter. The woman and the child’s first names matched those of Krasikov’s wife and daughter, however the last name was different (per our editorial policy we do not publish names of relatives of our investigation subjects).

Notably, the birth date of the woman was exactly one year older than that of Krasikov’s wife.

This is a pattern of false-identity creation that appears to be preferred by the FSB; and we have previously identified and reported on this in the case of the FSB poison squad that tailed Alexei Navalny. The passport number on which the woman traveled had a prefix of 45 that means that it would have been issued in Moscow.

We verified if a person with this name and birthdate exists in any Russian databases, and the result was negative. This, together with the naming and birthdate pattern, plus the full match of the child’s birthdate with that of Krasikov’s child, corroborated our hypothesis that the Russian authorities had issued a new identity to Vadim Krasikov’s family, and had provided them with an FSB “handler”. Indeed, travel data for Mr. Eroshkin shows that he traveled from Moscow to Crimea at least once every month since that initial trip in December 2019, and used this burner phone almost exclusively for communication with a new burner number that we believe is used by Ms. Krasikova.

Notably, the passport number issued for the new, fake identity of Vadim Krasikov’s wife shows that it is not a regular number issued in 2019. The numbering of the passport (45044201**) indicates that it was issued in Moscow in 2004 or early 2005 (long before Ms. Krasikova moved from Ukraine to Russia in 2009). More importantly, the passport number appears to be from a series of sequentially numbered passports issued to FSB undercover operatives. For instance, a number from the same series and only a few numbers apart was used by “Sergey Lukashevich”, a cover persona who in 2015 served as Minister of State Security of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Multiple media reports and witness testimony confirm that the so-called Ministry of State Security was staffed by FSB undercover operatives.

A screengrab showing travel details and passport number of “Sergey Lukashevich”.

Other passports from the same numbering range belong to other non-existing personas, some of which flew on joint bookings with members of the closest entourage of former Ukrainian president Yanukovich.

These new findings corroborate even further our previous conclusion that the FSB had a direct involvement in the preparation and commissioning of the Berlin assassination, and in the cover-up of the evidence after the killing. This, apparently, includes issuing cover identities for Krasikov’s family members and moving them to Crimea, where they appear to be in direct contact with an FSB handler.

The FSB Handler

Based on leaked 2017 employment data, Evgeny Eroshkin, born 1963, is an employee of Vympel Sodeystvie, one of the many Vympel-named private security companies formally owned by Eduard Bendersky. As written earlier, Bendersky is a former FSB Spetsnaz commander who owns a cluster of security-themed companies that boast of being able to “resolve any issue as complex as it may be” and being incorporated by former FSB special service officers. A review of recent airline travel data shows that in 2015 and 2016 Bendersky flew on joint bookings with Col. Gen. Alexey Sedov, Director of FSB’s 2nd Service.

Evgeny Eroshkin, photo from visa application.

In the months before the Khangoshvili assassination, Evgeny Eroshkin communicated by phone intensively with two of the suspects in the murder case: the accused, Vadim Krasikov, and the second suspect Roman Demyanchenko. As described above, our findings indicate that he also communicated frequently and traveled with Krasikov’s presumed wife after Krasikov was detained in Germany, implying that he had at least some degree of involvement in the preparation and clean-up operation after the Berlin attack.

However, data from a 2019 visa application submitted by Eroshkin suggests he may have had plans for more than just a remote involvement in this operation. Data from Schengen’s visa database seen by us shows that on 27 February 2019 Eroshkin applied – under his real name – for a Schengen visa at the Consulate of Greece in Moscow. He requested a multi-entry visa to travel to Europe in the period from 26 April 2019 until 26 October 2019.

However, the Greek consulate did not honor this request, and on the following day – 28 February 2019 – granted him a one-time visa valid only for 17 days during the period from 26 April to 27 May 2019.

Travel records for Eroshkin show that he chose not to use this visa, and did not travel to the Schengen area. Instead, on the day he received the shorter-than-expected visa, he initiated his first phone call to Vadim Krasikov. They had 28 phone interactions in the following five months, the last one just days before his trip to Berlin.

Relevance of Findings

The newly obtained data provided by Ukrainian authorities to the German investigators may become a crucial component in the prosecution’s case. If the new data makes its way to the evidence file of the ongoing court case – which is nearing its final phase – it may be enough to convince the court that “Vadim Sokolov” does not exist, and that on the eve of the assassination, the Russian state issued fake identity documents to Vadim Krasikov. This would strengthen the prosecution’s case that the killing was commissioned by the Russian state. The court will then have to weigh the voluminous – while circumstantial – evidence that Krasikov acted on behalf of the Russian state against the defendant’s continued silence.

In the latest court hearing , the court heard from a police officer to whom the defendant had earlier said that his mother could confirm his identity as “Sokolov”. The presiding judge offered the accused to provide name and contact details for his mother so she could be contacted to testify that he is who he says he is. The defendant’s lawyer quickly intervened and said that his client will continue to use his legal right to remain silent.

If a court verdict does corroborate the prosecution’s indictment, a new set of diplomatic sanctions from Germany are expected. The German government has already committed to further, harsher sanctions against Russia if the court verdict confirms the accusation of state involvement in Khangoshvili’s assassination.

Source:Bellingcat

Suleiman Gezmakhmaev – “I Served in the Chechen Police and Didn’t Want to Kill People.”

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Ramzan Kadyrov

On Monday, March 15, the paper Novaya Gazeta distributed a report by columnist Elena Milashina, named “I Served in the Chechen Police and Didn’t Want to Kill People.” The story highlights disclosures from Suleiman Gezmakhmaev, a previous official in Chechnya’s Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment, about how his unit executed a few local people in mid 2017. He says he helped capture and investigate a portion of these individuals, however he denies taking part in their torment and murder. Prior to distributing Gezmakhmaev’s story, Novaya Gazeta and its accomplices encouraged him and his family escape Russia. In the article, Milashina portrays in detail how she associated with Gezmakhmaev, what he did in the Chechen police, how the executions occurred, and which job high-positioning police authorities supposedly played in the killings.

Columnist Elena Milashina says she got a letter in September 2017 through her companion Musa Lomaev from a Chechen man who’d escaped Russia and was presently looking for haven in Germany. In the letter, the man depicted the torment and murder of prisoners in January 2017 at a base for the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment. Milashina mentioned a gathering with the letter’s creator, and he concurred, incredibly. They initially met in Hamburg in September 2017. That is the way Milashina got familiar with Suleiman Gezmakhmaev.

In April 2017, along with his significant other and their two kids, Gezmakhmaev escaped Chechnya for the European Union through Belarus. At that point, his previous partners in the police were searching for him. The family shown up first in Poland and afterward arrived at Germany. In June 2017, German relocation authorities talked with Gezmakhmaev about his explanations behind leaving Russia. He portrayed the executions in Chechnya however declined to name the authorities capable, stressed that his declaration could arrive at Russian authorities and become an issue in the event that he was denied refuge and compelled to get back to Russia. At last, Germany dismissed his refuge application on the detail that he expected to apply in Poland, where he and his family previously entered the EU. (The Gezmakhmaevs proceeded onward from Poland since it’s by and large a lot harder to get refuge there.)

Novaya Gazeta consented to help them discover asylum elsewhere, however this implied the family required first to get back to Russia.

For eighteen months, Gezmakhmaev and his family did precisely that, living covertly in an asylum given by common liberties activists, never leaving their home, never speaking with family members, and living altogether without the Internet. All through this time, attorneys at the Committee Against Torture recorded long periods of video interviews with Gezmakhmaev. Novaya Gazeta underscores that he gave declaration about the killings not in return for shelter abroad but rather on the grounds that “this horrendous wrongdoing, wherein he was additionally included, burdened him.”

Suleiman Gezmakhmaev was brought into the world in 1989 in the Chechen town of Achkhoy-Martan, around 30 miles southwest of Grozny. After grade school, he began working and never headed off to college. In 2011, he joined the police power. “The military was far off for Chechens. Development, driving a taxi, or the police — those were the alternatives,” he says. Gezmakhmaev turned into an expert rifleman in a police unit named after Akhmat Kadyrov and partook in purported “counterterrorist tasks” (KTOs).

In the help, Gezmakhmaev says he discovered that Chechen police polish off injured agitators in the field. “No one in Chechnya needs a genuine, breathing radical — under torment, they can say excessively,” he clarified. Officials informally gathered their weapons and utilized them to incite augmentations of their counterterrorist tasks by discharging at police designated spots or military units. Gezmakhmaev says law requirement depend on KTOs for subsidizing and execution pointers. The police even killed guiltless onlookers, once in a while during a genuine counterterrorist activity, however it’s simpler “just to abduct somebody and hold him in a cellar until his facial hair growth becomes out, prior to bringing him into the woodland dressed as a guerilla and dispensing with him,” clarifies Gezmakhmaev.

In 2012, Gezmakhmaev saw one of these killings firsthand. During a routine KTO, one of his kindred officials was on night obligation when he heard a man shout. The following morning, there was the sound of shots. Gezmakhmaev and a few different officials were subsequently educated that a radical had been killed in the wake of opposing the police, however Gezmakhmaev says he perceived the dead man: “It was a similar person they brought to our storm cellar a month prior. He was exceptionally pale and totally shaggy.” After this episode, Gezmakhmaev says he began keeping away from KTO tasks.

Lawfully, the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment does not have the position to capture individuals and hold them in confinement on the unit’s own grounds, yet officials did it in any case, wearing the emblem of other police branches. “Every one of the men in the regiment have an entire arrangement of bars and stripes from various divisions, including the exceptional powers, the mob police, Russia’s Interior Ministry, and their own unit,” Gezmakhmaev revealed to Novaya Gazeta. While he was in the help, Gezmakhmaev says the regiment completed mass captures only twice before January 2017: once in 2015 (when nobody was murdered) and again in 2016 (when the police purportedly beat at any rate two detainees to death).

Toward the beginning of January 2017, Gezmakhmaev’s regiment was requested to gather together people associated with arranging an assault against the 42nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division military station on the edges of the Chechen city of Shali. Authorities before long acquired in any event 56 individuals, a large portion of whom were imprisoned in the police unit’s rec center storm cellar. The regiment’s officials, alongside “Terek” exceptional powers troops and police from different regions, beat the prisoners with elastic hoses and clubs, tormenting them with power and bringing down them into barrels of water. The torment halted just when a detainee admitted or kicked the bucket.

Starting on January 14, Gezmakhmaev was doled out to watch the detainees being held in the exercise center storm cellar. Along with another official, his companion Suleiman Saraliev, he says they used to carry the prisoners to the shower whenever the situation allows and sneak them cleanser. They’d likewise allowed the men to ask and asked the regiment’s cafeteria laborers for additional food. Proportioned only a couple of slices of bread a day, in addition to perhaps a saltine, the detainees were purposely starved and kept feeble. “They couldn’t walk and would implode,” reviews Gezmakhmaev, who says his discussions with the prisoners persuaded him that they were honest.

There were in excess of twelve assumed “guerilla administrators” among the detainees, everything except one of whom wound up dead. Gezmakhmaev says he actually addressed “amir” Makhma Muskiev, who later sobbed under torment and admitted to each wrongdoing his abusers recommended. Adam Dasaev, another alleged administrator, “shouted around evening time like a crazy individual.” The police additionally captured his cousin, Imran Dasaev, imprisoning him in the cellar with a shot injury in his leg, which they would not treat, to guarantee gangrene.

As indicated by Gezmakhmaev, Dasaev said his leg injury happened when Chechen pioneer Ramzan Kadyrov coincidentally shot him. (Various different sources affirmed this record to Novaya Gazeta.)

In late January, officials constrained the 13 “amirs” to sign revelations that they wouldn’t leave the district and afterward moved them to another cellar on the compound. As Novaya Gazeta announced beforehand, the men were arranged against the dividers of a diversion room where Shalinsky District Police Chief Tamerlan Musaev and Akhmat Kadyrov Regiment Commander Aslan Iraskhanov were playing table tennis. The detainees were then taken to an adjoining room, where Turpal-Ali Ibragimov, the Shali region organization’s head of staff, was hanging tight for them. Behind the entryway into the room, Gezmakhmaev says he and individual official Suleiman Saraliev saw dead bodies. Saraliev was then arranged to acquire Makhma Muskiev. At the point when Gezmakhmaev understood that he was next to fill in as killer, he pardoned himself from obligation and got back to the sleeping quarters.

The following morning, Saraliev depicted what had happened the earlier evening: first, Ibragimov shot a couple of the “amirs,” before Commander Iraskhanov concluded that it is smarter to execute the detainees without staining the floor and dividers with blood. Eventually, Ibragimov’s watchmen choked the leftover detainees with practice ropes. Saraliev said he had to help execute Muskiev.

Saraliev had just been with the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Regiment for a couple of months when he was requested to participate in the January 2015 executions. The experience transformed him, reviews Gezmakhmaev, who says his companion began experiencing a sleeping disorder and bad dreams about Makhma Muskiev. He started taking Lyrica (an anticonvulsant mainstream among drug addicts in Chechnya) and stressing that Muskiev’s family members may look for retribution against him. Gezmakhmaev says Saraliev eventually chose to discuss the killings to his companion who worked either in the head prosecutor’s office or the insightful council.

The gathering occurred toward the beginning of March 2017. Saraliev’s companion tuned in to his story and requested seven days to consult with his administrators, however that was the last he knew about him. Gezmakhmaev at that point went on wiped out leave and didn’t see Saraliev once more. After one more week, he got a call from Saraliev, who was currently remaining with a cousin. “Try not to accept what they’re saying about me,” he asked Gezmakhmaev. At that point Saraliev quit noting his telephone. Gezmakhmaev learned later that “Terek” uncommon powers administrator Abuzaid Vismuradov (allegedly one of Ramzan Kadyrov’s beloved companions) had visited the regiment joined by “some addict” who guaranteed that Saraliev is gay.

A short time later, says Gezmakhmaev, Vismuradov brought Saraliev’s cousin to the regiment’s military quarters and asked him clearly: “Are you going to kill him or ought to we get it done ourselves?” In its report, Novaya Gazeta doesn’t explain who killed Suleiman Saraliev, yet we realize he was covered the following day, “practically stealthily,” without even a burial service. Gezmakhmaev and his family left Chechnya before long.

The state specialist who inspected Novaya Gazeta’s police report reasoned that Saraliev is as yet alive “yet his area is obscure.” Novaya Gazeta, then, has photos of his grave.

This is what Suleiman Gezmakhmaev wrote in his letter, which Elena Milashina read before she at any point met him in Germany:

“I also want to note that Abuzaid Vismuradov — the [“Terek”] special forces commander and “Akhmat” sports club president, nicknamed “Patriot” — is friends with [Akhmat Kadyrov Police Regiment commander] Aslan Iriskhanov and rarely visits our regiment. At that time, for about three weeks, beginning on January 12 [in 2017] […] Vismuradov came by almost every day. […] I doubt Iriskhanov would have dared to execute prisoners without direct orders from above, since Vismuradov was aware of all that was happening. It was clear that Vismuradov was in charge of everything, from the arrests to the executions. Also, Vismuradov couldn’t have ordered the killings without approval from Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic.”

FBI Shows How Azerbaijan Sabotaged Investigation Into Journalist’s Death

Azeri leader orders swift probe into journalist's death

The murderer ?

Darkness had fallen on the Azerbaijani capital of Baku when investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov arrived home from work on March 2, 2005. It wasn’t uncommon for Huseynov to stay at the offices of The Monitor, the magazine he edited, until after sundown.

The stairwell was especially dark that evening because a light above his apartment door wasn’t working. As Huseynov made his way to the third floor, an assassin armed with a semi-automatic pistol emerged out of the darkness above him. Seven shots rang out. Six bullets found their target. The fatal one pierced the top left-hand side of Huseynov’s chest, ripping through blood vessels and puncturing a lung.

Huseynov managed to stagger to his apartment, where his wife, father, and sister had been waiting for him. As the door swung open, he collapsed in the entryway.

As news of the attack spread, TV journalist Chingiz Sultansoy, a friend of Huseynov’s, hurried to the scene after taking a call from a concerned colleague. Police officers stood outside the building, and a crowd was gathering. Suddenly, Sultanoy remembers, Huseynov’s wife Rushaniya flung open a window. “They’ve killed him,” she screamed.Credit: MonitorJournalist Elmar Huseynov was gunned down on March 2, 2005, as he returned home from work.

The police moved aside, letting journalists, neighbors, and friends enter and leave. Sultansoy climbed the same stairs Huseynov had ascended not long before and saw the apartment door ajar. His friend was lying a few feet inside, his belly poking out from his sweater, blood smeared on his face. Sultansoy knelt and took Huseynov’s still-warm hand. Seeing for himself that his friend was dead, he kissed him and left.

Huseynov’s reporting had targeted Azerbaijan’s elite, from politicians to big business. Long before his death, he had been subjected to intimidation and threats on his life. Since that night, his friends and family have speculated about whether powerful individuals had sought to neutralize him.

“The pattern of pressure against Elmar in the run-up to his assassination bears similar hallmarks to many cases we have seen in other countries, in which journalists were deliberately targeted,” said Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat posted to Baku in the aftermath of Huseynov’s murder and now director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

On the 16th anniversary of Huseynov’s murder, OCCRP can shine new light on the murky investigation into the killing. Drawing on court filings and other documents obtained via freedom-of-information requests, our reporting includes an examination of a previously unpublished file from the FBI, which had been called in to help investigate.

The information lays out a catalogue of obfuscations and missteps since 2005, largely made by the Azerbaijani authorities who were meant to be responsible for bringing Huseynov’s killer or killers to justice. As the case remains unsolved, OCCRP has found that a key suspect remains at liberty, while Azerbaijan has appeared to mislead Husyenov’s family on the investigation’s status. As a result, an already troubling affair may have even graver implications for Azerbaijan’s steadily shrinking space for press freedom.

By March 2005, press freedom in Azerbaijan had already come under significant pressure from President Ilham Aliyev, who’d taken the reins of the South Caucasus nation from his father a year and a half earlier. Eight journalists had been arrested since the younger Aliyev had come to power, and with a parliamentary election due in November 2005, the media was bracing for further confrontation. That year, Azerbaijan ranked 141st of 167 countries on RSF’s Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

Elmar Huseynov (@MonitorJournal) | Twitter

The Monitor, Huseynov’s outlet, was known for its stinging reporting on corruption, which included taking aim at the president and his family. When rumors swirled that Huseynov had been silenced by powerful people, Aliyev strongly refuted suggestions that his family or its allies were involved. Decrying the crime as a “black spot” on Azerbaijan’s history, he promised a robust investigation, and put a call in to the then-U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish, to enlist expert help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

“This crime must be investigated thoroughly and the criminals must be called to account,” he said the day after the murder.

On the ground in Baku, the FBI would later meet with the lead investigators and Azerbaijani ministers, visit the crime scene, review the existing evidence and initial autopsy reports, and gather evidence themselves.

But from the start, the investigation was dogged by an apparent unwillingness by Azerbaijani officials to focus on whether Huseynov had been killed because of his journalism. Instead, ministers in charge of the probe fixated on unsubstantiated claims that Armenia had ordered the killing to harm Azerbaijan’s government.Credit: MonitorFriends and colleagues of Elmar Huseynov (pictured) wonder whether powerful people set out to silence him.

Sixteen years later, one of the murder suspects appears to live freely in Georgia, acquiring property interests in Tbilisi and a plot of land in Marneuli, in the country’s south. And although Azerbaijan’s Ministry for National Security insisted to Rushaniya Huseynova that its inquiries were ongoing, officials were telling the FBI, over the same time period, that the case was stalled.

While authorities were getting nowhere, Huseynov’s killing had an instant impact, according to RSF’s Vincent. The murder of one of the country’s best-known reporters sparked fear among other probing journalists that they could be next.

“Elmar’s case was particularly emblematic, not only in Azerbaijan, but throughout the region,” she said. “His targeting was no doubt intended to send a clear signal not to cross certain red lines, and was effective in creating a chilling effect that can still be felt to this day.”

The FBI case file into the murder, which the agency noted was so serious that “it could topple” the government, was compiled between 2005 and 2008. Seen by OCCRP, it reveals serious misgivings on the part of Legal Attaché Bryan Paarmann, who noted missed opportunities right from the start.

Paarmann pointed to basic failures in crime scene control on the night of the killing, when police failed to stop members of the public from laying a trail of flowers on the blood in the stairwell, destroying any possibility that tread or footwear evidence could be gathered.

Crime scene photographs seemed to have been taken long after any evidence was removed, a “very poor procedural error,” Paarmann wrote. The recovery team, he added, did not even wear gloves when recovering a key piece of evidence.

After discovering that Huseynov’s hallway had been darker than usual that night because a lightbulb above his door was not sitting properly in its socket, Paarmann noted that local investigators had failed to test that area for prints.

“[I] inquired as to whether this bulb had been processed for latent fingerprints and was informed that too many people had touched it therefore this was deemed as non productive,” he wrote.

In regard to Huseynov’s autopsy, Paarmann asked whether fingernail scrapings had been taken to check for skin samples that could identify the killer. He was told yes, this had been done, but the results had come back negative. However, he could find “no mention of this procedure” in initial reports provided by the Azerbaijanis.

Despite all this, some leads did appear promising.Credit: European Court of Human Rights/fileA gun that was recovered from a planter after the murder of Elmar Huseynov.

The day after the murder, a 5.45mm Baikal PSM semi-automatic pistol was found, sitting in plain view in a planter in front of Huseynov’s building. It still bore all its serial markings, which indicated it had been manufactured in Russia. Shortly afterwards, a dark-colored knit skullcap was recovered from another planter nearby.

The murder seemed “hasty and sloppily executed,” Paarmann wrote, the marksmanship poor. The weapon was found where it was “sure to be discovered,” with its markings clearly legible. The government of Azerbaijan felt the hit was carried out by a “skilled individual,” but a professional would have destroyed the markings and disassembled the gun, Paarmann reasoned.

But if he took hope from the fact that investigators were dealing with, in his words, “a possible amateur,” the FBI attaché was concerned by the attitude of Azerbaijani ministers.

Though they admitted there were several possible avenues of investigation, Paarmann appeared to grow frustrated as they obsessed over a theory that a foreign country had ordered a hit on Huseynov to sow chaos in Azerbaijan. At the top of the ministers’ list of possible perpetrators was Armenia, with Russia and Iran considered possibilities.

“The assembled ministers did acknowledge that the motive for this murder could have been purely personal or retaliation for Huseynov’s inflammatory journalistic positions, but spent a vast majority of their time enumerating why they believed it to be a coordinated, foreign-sponsored assassination aimed at destabilizing the government,” he wrote.

Paarmann wrote that government officials were doing “several things correctly,” but his early conclusions were damning.

“[I am] concerned with the premature focus on one theory of the crime and that it may lead to an attempt to make the facts fit that theory instead of a reasoned, methodical and unbiased investigation with utilization of logical, deductive reasoning towards a defensible conclusion,” he wrote.

When he made a raft of recommendations to Azerbaijan’s investigators, he was told they would “take them into consideration.” Instead, the FBI found itself slowly sidelined

Two months into the investigation, authorities had identified two suspects: Tahir Khubanov and Teimuraz Aliyev. Both citizens of neighboring Georgia, they had rented an apartment near Huseynov’s home in the period before the killing, and later crossed back over the Azerbaijan-Georgia border.

When Azerbaijani investigators recovered two pillowcases and clothing from their Baku apartment, the FBI matched DNA from these items with the cap found at the crime scene, which authorities said linked both men to the murder. The FBI described the evidence against the men as “strong,” but nothing has emerged to indicate that either man had a connection to the subjects of Huseynov’s journalism, leaving any possible motive a mystery.

A search was launched, but Azerbaijani authorities seemed reluctant to run images of the two men online. A July 2005 report from news agency Turan quoted officials as saying there was “no necessity in placing pictures of these people on the internet.”

Aliyev was finally located in Georgia, and denied involvement when interrogated by Georgian authorities in September 2006. The waters had been muddied, too, after former Azerbaijan Ministry of Interior official Haji Mamedov, on trial for several unrelated killings, claimed in the summer of 2006 that his hit squad had killed Huseynov. To help clear things up, in January 2007 the FBI offered to perform a polygraph test on Aliyev.

An FBI assistant legal attaché wrote to Azerbaijan’s then-Minister of National Security Eldar Mahmudov, saying Aliyev and the other suspect were likely still in Georgia and that Georgian authorities would probably cooperate.

An internal letter from the FBI to U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse, however, suggests the FBI saw Azerbaijan’s cooperation as a “hurdle” to getting the polygraph done. The FBI case file contains no evidence that it ever took place, and the investigation stagnated.

After the attaché met with the Ministry of National Security in September 2008, he wrote: “The [ministry] advised that their investigation has stalled and they do not have further need of FBI assistance.” Yet just a few months earlier, in July, ministry officials had told Rushaniya they were working tirelessly to bring the killers to justice. A senior official wrote to her lawyer: “At the moment a total, comprehensive and objective investigation of the case is being carried out.”

In March 2009, as Rushaniya persisted with her inquiries, she received another letter of response from a senior ministry official. Once more, he confirmed the investigation was ongoing. But he added, too, that the “preliminary investigation” had been extended to September 2009. This last detail is significant because by law, Rushaniya was only entitled to see case materials after any preliminary investigation was finished. Her lawyer would later point out that it seemed strange, four years after the murder and long after Azerbaijani authorities identified key suspects, that they would claim that the preliminary investigation was still ongoing. Writing a court submission, he said that this was “not likely” to be the case.

RSF’s Vincent said authorities in Azerbaijan “appear to have intentionally obstructed the pursuit of justice,” adding that the new documents “show, at best, a lack of political will to secure justice — or perhaps worse, a more sinister attempt to distract, deflect, and obstruct the criminal investigation.”

Though officials in Azerbaijan told Rushaniya in a 2009 letter that they were still looking for Khubanov and Aliyev, there were at least clues to the latter man’s location.

A simple public records search by OCCRP showed that somebody using Aliyev’s ID bought two apartments in Tbilisi, one in May 2008 and another in June 2008. The apartments were in a building occupied by several members of his immediate family, including his mother. OCCRP asked Azerbaijani authorities if they pursued this lead, but the request for comment went unanswered. Aliyev did not respond to written questions from OCCRP, which were hand-delivered to the building and received by a relative.

And on March 17, 2009, the same day the Ministry of National Security wrote to Rushaniya, Interpol wrote to the ministry with information that Aliyev was based in Tbilisi. Of Khubanov, there was no news.

It remains unclear from case files whether Azeri authorities relayed this information to Rushaniya, who declined to comment for this article.

She eventually brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2010. In their responses to her allegations in that case file, Azeri authorities pointed out that they had in fact asked for the extradition of Aliyev and Khubanov, but claimed that Georgia refused because they were Georgian citizens. The filings indicate Azerbaijan made this request to Georgia in 2005.Credit: MonitorElmar Huseynov’s murder remains unsolved, 16 years after his death.

Azerbaijani authorities did not respond to a question on whether they ever made further requests. However, the ECHR’s 2017 ruling pointed out that Georgia’s Deputy Prosecutor General had told Azerbaijan in 2005 that he was willing to start criminal proceedings against Aliyev within the Georgian justice system.

In other words, Aliyev could have been prosecuted if Azerbaijan had transferred the case to Georgia. Documents show that Georgia appears to have begun initial proceedings, but nothing came of them.

investigations/Ilham-Aliyev.jpg

Credit: Government of AzerbaijanAfter Ilham Aliyev took power in Azerbaijan, a crackdown against media was soon underway.

Rushaniya’s lawyer, Knut Rognlien, told the ECHR that when Azerbaijani authorities insisted that the suspects were foreigners who couldn’t be found or spoken to, they were simply avoiding uncomfortable questions. The same types of questions, according to the FBI file, that ministers had dodged right from the start.

“Had they been apprehended, Teimuraz Aliyev and Tahir Khubanov could also have been interrogated regarding possible contact with authorities and their motive for the murder,” Rognlien wrote.

Those who knew Huseynov say the impunity surrounding the case continues to do serious damage to press freedom in Azerbaijan.

Steinar Gil, Norway’s ambassador to Azerbaijan at the time of the killing, called it “a warning that journalists who want to criticize openly and stand for the values of the free press would be at risk.”

Aliyev is still going about his life today, while no trace of Khubanov has been found. The only person ever jailed in relation to the murder, Turgay Bayramov, was sentenced to two years in prison for buying a phone for the two men.

In response to a request for further information from OCCRP, Georgian prosecutors referred reporters back to the ECHR’s ruling. Azerbaijani prosecutors did not respond to a similar request.

Even as the investigation has stalled, three more reporters have died in the line of duty in Azerbaijan since Huseynov was gunned down on the darkened steps to his apartment. Azerbaijan has dropped to 168th of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

“There is no media freedom in Azerbaijan today,” Gil said. “It’s zero, none. After this, people would think ‘If this happened to Elmar, it could happen to anyone.’”

Eleanor Rose is an investigative journalist based in London who specializes in human rights and has written for the Guardian, the Evening Standard, and the Independent, among other publications.

Aidan Iusubova (iFact) contributed reporting.

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