An international media watchdog group said Tuesday that Russian prosecutors were investigating whether the Chechen police were involved in the killing of a journalist who exposed rights abuses in the region.
The Chechen prime minister and the Russian Foreign Ministry denied the claim.
Leaders of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said a Foreign Ministry official told them Monday that the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened a criminal investigation into several police officials in the region who may have killed Anna Politkovskaya because she was about to publish an article alleging their involvement in torture.
“The Foreign Ministry stressed that this is one of several lines of investigation,” said Joel Simon, director of the watchdog group.
A Foreign Ministry official gave a different account, saying that the criminal probe had been opened by prosecutors in Chechnya — not the Prosecutor General’s Office — and that the authorities were investigating allegations of abuse that Politkovskaya had raised in an article published after her murder.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that no connection had yet been established between the article and her killing. The ministry later issued a statement saying “the claim does not correspond with reality.”
“I see this as an elaborate provocation,” the Chechen prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “There could be no other assessment.”
Kadyrov heads a security force widely alleged to have committed kidnappings and torture under the justification of cracking down on separatist rebels who have fought Russian forces in Chechnya for most of the last dozen years.
Politkovskaya was fatally shot in her Moscow apartment building last October in a killing that caused an international outcry and underscored the dangers for journalists who criticize the authorities or expose injustice.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s Office in Moscow, Natalya Brusentsova, said prosecutors there were pursuing a single investigation into Politkovskaya’s killing and would not disclose details while it was in progress. She said the office was unaware of a separate investigation involving the Chechen police.
The Foreign Ministry official said that if a connection was established between Politkovskaya’s article and her killing, the cases could be merged.
Paul Steiger, the Committee to Protect Journalists board chairman, said his group’s claim had been made after Foreign Ministry officials read members of the group a document.
“We asked them to confirm it several times, and they did,” Steiger said.
Thirteen Russian journalists have been murdered in contract-style killings since 2006, making Russia the third-most-deadly country for journalists after Iraq and Algeria during the past 15 years, Simon said. None of the killings has been solved.