ST. PETERSBURG, Russia–It’s been more than a year now since someone murdered three Russian journalists on a dark road in a remote corner of the Central African Republic.
Within days of the killings on the night of July 30-31, 2018, as The Daily Beast reported at the time, there were suspicions the journalists had been set up. Since then, the official investigations have gone nowhere or been diverted down blind alleys, and if the Kremlin and its front men have their way—which they normally do in the Central African Republic—the case will go completely cold.
But the families of the victims, their colleagues, and the exiled Russian tycoon who sent the journalists on their fatal mission in the first place say they are determined to see justice done. Their investigations have peeled back layer after layer of an ostensibly private “company” noteworthy for conspiracy and corruption, which Russian President Vladimir Putin evidently employs to extend his influence around the world.
Americans concerned about the ruthlessness of Moscow’s operations to subvert or dominate other countries should take note as evidence mounts that some of the central figures in the cyberattacks on the U.S. presidential election in 2016 may also be implicated in the Africa homicides.
The victims were Orkhan Dzhemal, 51, a famous Russian war correspondent; Alexander Rastorguyev, 47, a film director; and Kirill Radchenko, 33, a cameraman. They had traveled to Africa to make a documentary about the “Wagner Group,” a highly secretive private military contractor allegedly created by the infamous Russian billionaire and Putin crony, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
He is the same figure named in a detailed indictment by the Mueller probe in February 2018 and in the subsequent Mueller Report released this year as the money man behind the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory here in St. Petersburg that set out to defeat Hillary Clinton, then help elect Donald Trump in 2016. (Prigozhin told a Russian state news agency that he was not upset about his indictment. “Americans see what they want to see,” he said.) But the troll factory is just one of many operations that are part of what his underlings refer to as “The Company.”
Prigozhin, often given the anodyne sobriquet “Putin’s chef,” initially built his fortune on huge Russian government catering contracts, but the tentacles of his organization are spread far and wide, and in some surprising places. He even has a firm that makes candy, and there are many here who would tell you the sweets have a sinister background. “These are bloody chocolates, produced by the same people who attack and kill journalists,” claims Yegor Alekseyev, a blogger from St. Petersburg. “Two men broke my nose and smashed my teeth in 2016 after I published stories about Prigozhin’s ‘troll factory.’ These are dangerous people backed up by the [Russian government’s] special services.”
In 2014, when Putin made his move to take the Crimean peninsula away from Ukraine and launch covertly a separatist revolution in the east of that country that has now cost more than 13,000 lives, combatants linked to a mysterious organization of mercenaries started showing up. Many of its recruits appeared to have come from Russian military intelligence, the GRU, especially the special forces component known as Spetsnaz. They answered to a former officer named Dmitry Utkin, nicknamed “Wagner.”
These operatives also surfaced in Syria, in Sudan, and in the Central African Republic. Their objective was not only to extend Russian influence, but to take control of industries and especially natural resources, further enriching their backer, who was soon reported to be Prigozhin.
He has issued pro forma denials, but evidence of Prigozhin’s ties to the group has continued to mount, especially in the private investigations of those trying to get to the bottom of the Central African murders.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once reputedly the richest man in Russia–an oligarch so wealthy and powerful that Putin felt threatened, and finally managed to put him away in prison for almost a decade. When Khodorkovsky was released in 2013, he went to Britain and has since worked as one of Putin’s most active opponents in exile.
It was Khodorkovsky who funded the fatal trip to the Central African Republic by Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko to report on the Wagner Group’s activities, and it is Khodorkovsky who has underwritten the most exhaustive investigation of their murder. “Somebody has to put evidence together for the day Putin’s crooks end up in court,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast last year. He hired journalists, military experts, private detectives and others to delve into the killings, and issued a “final report” under the auspices of his Dossier Center on the anniversary of the murders.
The picture that emerges over the course of almost 80 pages is highly detailed and deeply disturbing.
For starters, the Dossier investigators addressed the official version put forth by Russian authorities and the CAR security forces, many of them trained and funded by the Kremlin directly and also by Wagner personnel. Their claim is that the Russian documentary makers were ambushed on a back road at night by bandits wearing turbans and speaking Arabic who shot all three of them dead. The killers let the local driver, named as Bienvenue Douvokama, escape in his car and the sketchy account of the attack came from Douvokama.
When the official version failed to satisfy the victims’ families, friends, or colleagues in the independent press, a Prigozhin-backed news agency, RIA FAN, conducted its own investigation of the murder and named Dominique Christophe Raineteau as the mastermind, claiming that he was a French mercenary or agent in league with terrorists.
“We have our vision of what happened in CAR,” RIA FAN editor Yevgeny Zubarev wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “It was a planned provocation but you are never going to publish our conclusions… Your publication is neither going to mention in a negative light Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the main suspect of this crime; nor the Western (French) special services, the possible accomplices,” wrote Zubarev.
Actually, the RIA FAN conclusions are quite interesting, because they do not agree at all with the official government versions blaming unknown Arabic-speaking thieves. The general thrust of the RIA FAN report is that the Russian journalists were killed in order to embarrass Russia (if not indeed to blame Prigozhin and Putin). The agent who organized the murders, according to RIA FAN, was Raineteau, a French mercenary who is protected by the French secret services, and Khodorkovsky himself, who supposedly paid Raineteau to set up the team Khodorkovsky had sent.
RIA FAN notes the extensive French-Russian rivalry for resources and dominance in Africa as the motive for the French plot, and says Khodorkovsky’s motive is to “discredit any activity of Russia abroad, particularly in Africa and the revenge directed at the Russian Federation.”
All of this makes for a fascinating narrative of conspiracy, and is typical of disinformation that tries to ascribe presumed motives—“who benefits from the crime”—as proof when it is really self-serving conjecture.
There is some hearsay in the RIA FAN report, but the documentary evidence linking Raineteau to the killing is virtually nonexistent, while the account compiled by Khodorkovsky’s investigators appears to be based largely on minute examination of phone records and emails (albeit without any explanation of how they were obtained).
The narrative developed by the investigators for Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Centre goes roughly like this:
The three journalists made a critical mistake when they were looking for a “fixer” to set up appointments, transportation, lodging, translation and the like while they were in the CAR. Even though they were investigating one Prigozhin operation, Wagner, they asked a journalist working for another Prigozhin company, RIA FAN, for help. This may not be quite as unusual as it sounds, because journalists working for conflicting media often believe they have more common bonds as professionals in the field than as servants for their bosses in the home offices. That may have been the case where the request for advice from FAN journalist Kirill Romanovsky was concerned.
He in turn suggested they contact by text message a Dutch man with experience in the CAR as a United Nations employee or contractor who went by the name of “Martin.”
The RIA FAN report would later suggest Martin was none other than the mysterious French operative Raineteau. But the Dossier Centre investigation concludes “with a high degree of probability that the fixer ‘Martin’… never existed.” Rather, “he was invented by the coordinators of a thoroughly planned operation.”
“Martin” did not show up at the airport as expected, when the crew arrived, and they never once laid eyes on him or, for that matter, spoke to him on the phone. Everything was handled by text messages, including Martin’s claim that he was 376 kilometers from the CAR capital Bangui in the town of Bambari, where they were headed initially the day they were killed. According to the Dossier Centre report, cell phone records show “Martin,” or at least that phone, never left the capital.
The Dossier Centre investigation notes that the local driver the crew hired, Bienvenue Douvokama, is believed to be an agent or informer for the local gendarmerie, and was in “constant operational contact with gendarme Emmanuel Kotofio” who “tracked the journalists’ movements and was in their immediate vicinity.” (Kotofio is quoted by RIA FAN saying he and Douvokama are old friends and just like to shoot the breeze.)
Kotofio, in turn, “maintained contact with a man identified by the Dossier Centre as an ‘instructor in surveillance, counter-surveillance, recruitment and intelligence work’” from another Prigozhin company, M-Finans, run by one Aleksandr Sotov, who then reported to Valery Zakharov, a Russian adviser to the president of the CAR and head of a team of instructors in Prigozhin’s “Company.”
On the fatal night of July 30, according to the Dossier Centre, Kotofio the gendarme passed through a military checkpoint at the town of Sibut, on the same road the journalists would take only minutes later. With Kotofio were three Caucasians, “presumably Russians,” according to the Dossier Centre report. Kotofio drove back to the checkpoint later at 8 p.m. The journalists’ driver reported their murder about 45 minutes later at a village near the scene.
The following day, according to the Dossier Centre, a “disinformation campaign” began to confuse and impede any outside investigation.
According to emails obtained by the Dossier Centre, which cannot be independently verified, Prigozhin is personally involved in running the Company’s projects in the Central African Republic.
The Kremlin remains deaf to the victims’ families’ demands to question Prigozhin and his men on the ground, including commanders of the Russian militia working for CAR’s leadership.
Alexander Radchenko’s, the father of the cameraman, says it is easy for him to connect the dots identifying the main suspects. Since July 30, 2018, the day his son’s body was found in CAR, Radchenko has been analyzing reports by private investigators and journalists, and read and watched interviews with Moscow’s key man in CAR, Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer, who is now the country's main security adviser. “The investigators–along with Russian diplomats, FSB, GRU–back up the Russian military instructors working in CAR instead of questioning the main guy, Zakharov,and his bosses,” Radchenko told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
The heartbroken father has written more than 30 petitions to Russian state detectives investigating the criminal case. Some of his requests ostensibly were taken into consideration, but most of them were ignored. Radchenko told The Daily Beast that in his opinion the murder was “undoubtedly a set up.”
Over the last six months, the father says, he has seen enough evidence collected by independent reporters to conclude that “Yevgeny Prigozhin, Valery Zakharov and his aide Alexander Sotov are the principal suspects to be questioned about the murder of my son.” But Radchenko sounds hopeless: “Every time I ask the state detective on this case, Igor Zolotov, to call them for questioning, he seems too shy and tells me: ‘We should not bother such important men, they must be busy.’”
Khodorkovsky’s team has tried to fill that investigative gap. “We have done our part of the job, presented mobile phone billing to demonstrate that Zakharov, his aid Alexander Sotov, the gendarme they trained and the crew called each other dozens of times during the two days before the murder,” Maxim Dbar, Khodorkovsly’s spokesman, told The Daily Beast. “We have no authority to question the key suspects."
Irina Gordiyenko, a reporter for independent Novaya Gazeta, especially wants to know who killed Orkhan Dzhemal, the father of her son. “I want to ask both Zakharov and Sotov about the billing data, what sort of actions they coordinated from the moment of the journalists’ arrival in CAR,” Gordiyenko said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “I have questions for Zakharov about CAR gendarmes being trained in Russia. I want to ask the Russian MID [ministry of foreign affairs] why the journalists’ belongings have not been moved to Russia, why our diplomats consult with Prigozhin’s Wagner about the official version of the murder to give to the public.”
Somebody shot Rostorguyev from a 7.62 mm Kalashnikov assault rifle. Two bullets hit the journalist’s heart. “Only a professional could fire so accurately in the dark,” Gordiyenko added her doubts.
The United States imposed sanctions against billionaire Prigozhin and his Concord holding company in 2016 for constructing a military base for Russian forces near Ukraine. But neither the sanctions, nor the links to the CAR murder that shook the entire country, has slowed the growth of Prigozhin’s business empire.
Concord keeps working on immense state contracts, his Zinger Development group is planning to build an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland, and foreign tourists keep buying his chocolates at Eliseyev Emporium, a historic architectural landmark on Nevsky Prospect.
Jessica from Vermont was purchasing Marzipans shaped as carrots, half a pound of Lukum and chocolates with lime taste. “I am not sure I know who Prigozhin is, I am sorry,” the tourist told The Daily Beast.
Prigozhin has access to the highest offices in the Kremlin and cooperates closely with the defense ministries of both Russia and the CAR. The power is on his side.
“The murder of the three journalists is not going to be investigated, at least there will never be public knowledge of who ordered the killing,” a political analyst close to the Kremlin, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast. “Prigozhin has created private military forces to help Russia, he is fighting the war against Russia’s enemies that are constantly undermining our power, so of course Moscow will not go against him to support the dossier created by Putin’s enemy, Khodorkovsky.”
In the eyes of much of the world, however, Putin’s name will be linked forever to the murder of the three journalists just as it is linked to the killing of journalists Anna Politkovskaya or Natalia Estemirova.
Dzhamal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko were—and remain—important symbols for Russians who still believe the search for solid facts and the truth is the only way to combat corruption and the disinformation used to disguise it, even if the quest costs you your life.
Anna Nemtsova reported from St. Petersburg, Christopher Dickey from Paris.