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Russian journalist dies after beating by police officer

Human rights officials warn that the case is just one small story in a tapestry of alcoholism, police brutality and expectation of impunity for authorities that bedevils today's Russia.

January 21, 2010|By Megan K. Stack

Reporting from Moscow — A Russian journalist who was thrown into a Siberian drunk tank and savagely beaten by a young police officer died Wednesday, in a case that has sparked a national conversation about the latent alcoholism and casual violence that wind their way through life in this winter-hardened land.

Konstantin Popov was a little-known journalist who specialized in writing about economics. A few days into the new year, in the thick of a 10-day Russian holiday known for its debaucheries, the 47-year-old was arrested and placed in the police holding cell reserved for the drunk and disorderly.

He was taken home the next day, but he had been beaten so badly that his wife grew alarmed and took him to a hospital. His internal organs had been damaged, and he soon lapsed into a coma.

Attacks on journalists are not uncommon in Russia, and Popov's death drew national attention. News conferences were called. The Tomsk drunk tank was closed down. The deputy police chief resigned, along with the supervisor of the holding cell. The police chief apologized. The young officer was arrested and confessed.

But human rights activists warn that the case is just one small story in a tapestry of alcoholism, police brutality and expected impunity for authorities that bedevils today's Russia.

"The only thing different about this case is that he happened to be a journalist, so it became a high-profile public case. But the same thing happens every day," said Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights lawyer and chairwoman of Russia's Civic Assistance committee. "Usually the cases are just closed down because there's no evidence, nobody testifies, and it's impossible to get to the bottom of it."

There's no indication that Popov's death was the deliberate killing of a journalist. He had worked for years as a spokesman for the now-bankrupt Yukos oil company; more recently he had opened a publishing company and printing plant, and wrote columns about economics.

"Anybody could be beaten like that," said Konstantin Karpachyov, editor of the Tomsk edition of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "He was not a high-profile journalist and he was not publicly known. We can't say he had a big name in local journalism."

Popov wound up in one of the many drunk tanks that exist across Russia, holding pens for people who have drunk themselves blind, beaten up their wives or girlfriends -- or both.

The tanks are notoriously harrowing places. People who wash into police custody during the wee hours are sometimes beaten, forced into cold showers or lashed to cots; they often lose their wallets or cellphones for good.

The 26-year-old police officer told investigators that he lost control of himself because of stress, a Tomsk investigator said at a news conference Wednesday, according to the Interfax news agency. The policeman, Alexei Mitayev, will undergo a string of psychiatric tests next month.

The investigator told reporters that Mitayev was suffering "a lengthy, traumatizing situation" because he had fathered children with two women.

"Essentially, he lived between two families," investigator Andrei Gusev told reporters. "He says the stress is due to family problems."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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