Anti-Graft Crusade A Dangerous Business In Russia Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has urged the public to help fight endemic corruption in the country. But in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, journalists and civil rights activists who were investigating allegations of local corruption have been brutally attacked in the past year.
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Anti-Graft Crusade A Dangerous Business In Russia

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Anti-Graft Crusade A Dangerous Business In Russia

Anti-Graft Crusade A Dangerous Business In Russia

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev has said the biggest problem is corruption, and he's urged the public to help. But for those who join the fight, it can be dangerous.

In a suburb of Moscow called Khimki, at least three journalists and one activist have been savagely attacked in the past year. And all have at least one thing in common: They were investigating allegations of corruption in the local mayor's office.

NPR's Anne Garrels sent us this report.

Ms. YEVGENIYA CHIRIKOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

ANNE GARRELS: Yevgeniya Chirikova is a petite 32-year-old mother of two beguiling young daughters. From her tiny two-room apartment, she has taken on Khimki's mayor and the local governor, a Kremlin ally. It started two years ago.

Ms. CHIRIKOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: When she and her husband were walking in their local woods, they noticed red paint slashes on the trees, the kind used to trace a path for clear-cutting timber. To her horror, she found out the regional governor and mayor had signed off on a new highway to be built smack through the middle of the Khimki forest.

She teamed up with a local journalist, Mikhail Beketov. They found that orders for the highway were illegal. Beketov printed a series of articles about the development plans. His reports were picked up by the national press. Then, as he began to investigate the mayor's financial holdings, he was brutally beaten. Yevgeniya Chirikova says he now has severe brain damage.

Ms. CHIRIKOVA: (Through Translator) He was once a giant of a guy. He now has the mentality of a child. He can't write. He can't speak. He's partially paralyzed. The lesson is clear: You shouldn't touch such subjects.

GARRELS: Alfred Pchelintsev heads up the Khimki branch of an NGO called the Movement Against Corruption. It's been looking into the exorbitant cost of new highways: $237 million per kilometer, compared to $6 million in the U.S. This summer he was pushing for an investigation into whether city officials profit from land development when he, too, was attacked.

Mr. ALBERT PCHELINTSEV (Director, Movement Against Corruption): (Through translator) Someone knocked me down, forced an air gun into my mouth and pulled the trigger. The doctor says I probably would've died had I not jerked my head. Instead of going into my brain, the bullet shattered my jaw.

GARRELS: According to friends, he received a phone call in his hospital room from a national representative of United Russia, the country's ruling party, warning him not to talk about the attack. Several operations later, Pchelintsev says he's scared. Until now, he had not spoken to the press. And he flip-flops, one minute insisting the attack was just by a common criminal, then he acknowledges it was probably because of his work.

His case is the only one where police have successfully detained a suspect. However, the one witness to the shooting has since recanted his testimony. Pchelintsev says the witness told him he'd been threatened.

But Pchelintsev does plan to continue his work. He's encouraged by a law pushed by President Medvedev. It obliges the authorities to follow up on corruption charges raised by the public.

Mr. PCHELINTSEV: (Through Translator) In the past, officials didn't listen to us. But recently, there was a roundtable with top officials, and I was invited. They said they had dramatically increased the number of corruption cases they were investigating.

GARRELS: Konstantin Fetisov, his assistant, is not as optimistic. Until recently, their office had been a convenient storefront where people could report government shakedowns, just what President Medvedev has advocated. But Fetisov says their landlord recently refused to extend the lease because of threats from local officials.

Mr. KONSTANTIN FETISOV (Assistant to Albert Pchelintsev): (Through Translator) In other regions, we've opened up some kind of dialogue with officials. But here in Khimki, they refuse to work with us. They've locked us out and worse.

GARRELS: Yevgeniya Chirikova, the woman fighting for the Khimki forest, initially had no idea what she was getting into. But even now she says she won't be frightened off.

Ms. CHIRIKOVA: (Through Translator) This is a critical moment. If we are quiet and show that we are scared, we will lose everything.

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow.

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