Murder scandal over 'libelled' Russian minister

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The Independent Online
PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Hours before he was due to set off for the United States to hammer out details over his nation's role in a Bosnian peace-keeping force, Pavel Grachev, Russia's Defence Minister, was battling on a different front at home - in a politically explosive libel case.

After being ordered to court, first by a judge and then by President Boris Yeltsin, General Grachev yesterday made a brief appearance in a Moscow courtroom to complain that he had been "insulted" by an article in a Russian newspaper which accused him of theft and corruption.

The roots of the dispute lie in a still unsolved scandal that has preoccupied Moscow's journalists ever since it happened just over a year ago: the assassination of Dmitry Kholodov, a 27-year-old reporter with Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Kholodov had been investigating corruption in the Russian army during its withdrawal from eastern Germany and had published a stack of incriminating material. He hoped to find more when he received an anonymous call telling him to pick up a briefcase at a railway station. The case blew up in his face.

His murder caused an uproar - thousands of the paper's readers turned up at his funeral - much of which focused on General Grachev. Shortly afterwards Moskovsky Komsomolets accused the minister of illegally receiving a Mercedes limousine, paid for by funds that were supposed to go towards military housing. "A thief should be in jail and not in charge of the Defence Ministry", it wrote. The general decided to sue.

But General Grachev showed little enthusiasm in fighting his corner in person. He failed to turn up at several hearings, complaining that he wanted no part in a media circus. A judge finally ordered him to court for yesterday's hearing, threatening to bring him in "by force".

Even then the general demurred, announcing through his aides that he would be abroad. Evidently alarmed by the notion that one of his own ministers was flagrantly flouting the law, President Yeltsin intervened, ordering him to rearrange his travel plans.

In court yesterday, General Grachev's comments were brief. "One can only call a person a thief after a court has made a decision," he said, adding he had been insulted "not just as a person, but also as the highest figure in the Russian Ministry of Defence."

The case will go on, and so too will the anger over Kholodov's death. To the horror of some journalists, the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, Pavel Gusev, recently apologised on television to General Grachev for linking him to the murder, saying such issues were up to a court to decide.

On Tuesday, Mr Gusev sought to clarify his position further by publishing a signed editorial: "I know that Dima Kholodov was killed by professionals in military uniform. It is a terrible sin to blame someone for a murder, but there was no mistake when I spoke about the Defence Ministry. If your 'firm' has squads of assassins, whether you know about it or not, then you are to take part of the blame and suspicion."

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