Briton shot dead by Russian mafia

Click to follow
The Independent Online




A Scottish lawyer who was shot dead in a St Petersburg hotel was an innocent bystander caught in the cross-fire of a Russian mafia shoot-out, according to police and diplomats.

John Hyden, 41, from Edinburgh, died instantly from a gunshot wound to the head when two men burst into the Nevsky Palace - one of the top two hotels in city - and opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles, unleashing about 60 rounds.

Detectives believe Mr Hyden, who was drinking a cup of coffee in the hotel's Vienna Cafe, was hit by a stray bullet after the gunmen began firing at a group of Russian men sitting at another table. Two of the group - policemen working on contract as bodyguards - were killed, and a third, Viktor Gavrilenkov, was injured. The gunmen then escaped by car, leaving behind their guns and coats.

Reports were circulating in St Petersburg last night that the killings involved the Tambov gang, one of a handful of competing criminal organisations which plague the Russian city. Mr Gavrilenkov's brother was shot last year.

"We have no reason to believe that [Mr Hyden] was anything other than an innocent bystander," said Ian Hay-Campbell, a spokesman for the British Embassy. He said police were compiling a report on his death, which would eventually be given to John Guy, the Consul General in St Petersburg.

Mr Hyden, who lived in Moscow, had been working on a project to restore the St Petersburg water supply, funded by the European Bankers' Reconstruction and Development Agency. "He worked so hard to help them," said his widow, Pat, speaking from Edinburgh, where she had returned to celebrate the 21st birthday of her daughter, Heather.

"The EU were so pleased with the first project that they did, they were trying to get another going. He was just sitting there, minding his own business, when the mafia came in and started shooting." His presence in the hotel appears to have been a matter of bad luck, as he was staying in another hotel in the city and had been due to return to Britain next week.

Gangland shoot-outs and contract killings are an almost daily event in post-Soviet Russia, so much so that they often go unnoticed. The last few years has seen the murder of dozens of bankers, business executives, and journalists, usually by contract killers, who act for as little as $2,000 a time. But most crimes go unsolved, not least because the police are demoralised, ill-trained, starved of cash, and endemically corrupt.

Mr Hyden's death will be another blow to Russia's pro-reformers who have have long bemoaned the low level of foreign investment, which is outstripped by Hungary. International businesses - with some high-profile exceptions, like Heinz, Coca-Cola and McDonald's - have been reluctant to pour money into a country plagued by an estimated 30,000 mafia gangs, battling for control over almost every source of illegal profit.

Their wariness is scarcely suprising, given the statistics. In 1994, police say there were 500 contract killings, and in one two-day period, 13 people were assassinated. Moscow's business community is still reeling from the death last year of the head of its Round Table, apparently by poisoning. He was the ninth member of the organisation to be murdered.

Those who do decide to venture into post-Soviet Russia usually take extraordinary security precautions: expatriates live behind an array of locks, alarms, and bullet-proof doors and vehicles. Russia now has almost a million security guards, many of them ex-KGB thugs working as personal bodyguards. Moscow's flashier boutiques and supermarkets are invariably patrolled by armed men.

Mr Hyden is one of thousands of foreigners who fall victim to crime - usually robbery, mugging, or pickpocketing. Last year, however, a Briton sitting in a cafe was hit in the arm after a gunman burst out of the kitchen, and began firing. A few months earlier, the John Bull pub, a popular British haunt in downtown Moscow was bombed - a tactic popular with the mafia to punish those who refuse their extortion attempts.

Many of the victims of Russia's army of hitmen have willingly chosen to brave the turbulent world of business, where fortunes are won and lost in a matter of minutes and where guns are as commonly worn as gold tie- pins.

The tragedy of Mr Hyden's death is that he did not fall into this category. A lover of Russia for some 20 years, he was in the country to help it negotiate the path to reform. But the endless worry and surrounding violence had been taking its toll. "He felt very tired," said his wife, "It had got to the stage where he didn't want to go back."