Clean-up crusade costs Russian policeman his life

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THEY ALL knew that someone, some day, would kill him, and they told him so. His family repeatedly warned him. So did his friends. One of them even tried to spell out the dangers to him on the phone two hours before his murder.

Igor Lykov laughed it off. He acknowledged he was at risk, but his friends felt he did not really grasp the reality of the threat.

He was searched, followed, repeatedly disciplined by his bosses, sacked and reinstated, and arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts. Yet he still failed fully to appreciate that one day one of his enemies would go further, that one evening a contract killer would creep into the peeling corridor outside his apartment, ring the bell, shoot him twice, and flee into the darkness. He was left to stagger into his kitchen to die in front of his 15-year-old daughter, Lida.

On one level, Igor Lykov was a minnow, a low-flying $200-a-month major with a division of the transport police which devotes most of its energies to catching poachers and smugglers on the Volga River. But he had established a larger profile: unlike virtually all his colleagues in uniform, he was prepared to speak out publicly against crime and civil rights abuses within the ranks and the legal system.

He actively pursued corrupt colleagues and, according to his family, forced more than a dozen out of their jobs. "He was very strongly morally motivated," said Andrei Mironov, a Moscow-based human rights activist and former Soviet political prisoner. "He had a sense of justice, a sense of what was true and what was a lie."

Such was the respect that he commanded in the city of Saratov, in southern Russia, that hundreds packed the courtyard outside his home on the day of his funeral last month. And such was the discomfort caused by his ceaseless probing that senior officials from the police and the city boycotted the event. "It was an embarrassment," recalled his friend, Alexander Pronin, a former KGB officer in Saratov. "No one from the higher administration turned up. Now that would not happen in America, would it, if a cop was killed?"

By the time he was murdered, aged 45, Igor Lykov had a quixotic reputation as a self-appointed, legally-literate one-man unit fighting to clean up a police and judicial system that is widely acknowledged to one of the most corrupt in the world.

Top Russian newspapers such as Izvestia published interviews with him; he had appeared on national television; he attended human rights conferences in Moscow on corruption in the security services. He wrote articles for the local press on police methods of hiring informants. Sometimes he named names. Last year he wrote to the governor of Saratov complaining about a local politician who was secretly in cahoots with the local security services. "It is," he wrote, "immoral and unacceptable."

That is why everyone knew he was in danger. "I believe those who ordered the murder are from somewhere within law enforcement," said Svetlana Baronova, a lawyer and close friend of the major's who used to work with him in the force. "I can't say whether they were the police, the security services, the prosecutors or who it was. But I do believe they were from law enforcement."

It was Mrs Baronova who warned Major Lykov during a telephone conversation just before his death.

He was in high spirits, having just returned from a trip to Moscow, 500 miles away, where he took part in a press conference on crime in the police force, organised by the human rights group the Glasnost Foundation. "I told him that he was an idiot, and that he will be killed," she said, "I asked him who would look after his children?" His wife died nine years ago. "He just laughed and said - you can."

Yet, while cheerfully waving away the concerns of his family and friends, he was well aware his zeal had made him enemies. That much was clear from his own experience. His family and friends say that over his 25 years as a policeman he had 17 disciplinary actions filed against him. On one occasion, he was sacked and then - after bombarding the authorities with letters - reinstated, after proving his firing was illegal.

As time passed, the threats against him became graver. In March, he was stopped by police from the Interior Ministry in Saratov, handcuffed, and taken to a station where he was roughed up. (His response was to start criminal proceedings against them.)

In another particularly sinister incident, a fortnight before he was shot, he found the brake cables in his car had been severed. When he was finally killed, detectives discovered that the weapon was a special issue police pistol. Perhaps it belonged to a criminal with a grudge - such weapons can be found on the black market. But perhaps it did not.

Seven weeks have elapsed since the murder, but the culprits have yet to be found. The procurator in Saratov, Andrei Kornovarov, who is heading the murder investigation, was unwilling to say much yesterday beyond the fact that work was continuing. No one has been charged.

The possibilities are multiple. Shortly before his death, Major Lykov is believed to have been investigating a senior official in the tax police. He was also pursuing seven former cops, linked with a criminal syndicate. He was outspoken about the security services, whom he believed were selling compromising material to criminals. And, prosecutors say, he was brokering a deal between two feuding business interests, one of whom was a friend.

What is clear, though, is that Russia has lost an important voice. Igor Lykov was undoubtedly a whistle-blowing zealot. But he was also needed.

Even a cursory glance at the statistics is enough to show the dimension of official corruption, which Boris Yeltsin has conceded infects every level of society. The Interior Ministry sacked 21,347 officers for corruption in 1996. Another 19,000 were thrown out last year.

Stories of police corruption are so commonplace in Russia that they are regarded as the rule rather than the exception. Among the latest - high ranking officers from the Interior Minister, who are reportedly being investigated for embezzling 350m roubles (pounds 35m). "Almost every day there a crimes in which the police have taken part," said the governor of Saratov, Dmitri Ayatskov. "They take bribes, and sell drugs and weapons."

The major was an exception - not only a clean cop, but one who was prepared to fight for his principles in public. "He is irreplaceable," said Mr Pronin, "People here do not realise what they have lost."