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September 20, 2018 - Updated on September 21, 2018

Russia: Media co-founder's poisoning must be properly investigated, RSF says

Credit: Vasily Maximov / AFP

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for a full and impartial investigation into the poisoning of Pyotr Verzilov, a well-known activist and co-founder of the Mediazona news website, who was trying to shed light on the murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic when he was hospitalized in Moscow last week.


His ex-wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, yesterday confirmed reports in various independent Russian media outlets that he had been investigating the murders of the three Russian journalists. He had received a report about their deaths the day before he became very ill, she said.


Verzilov, who participated in a Pussy Riot protest during the World Cup final in Moscow in July, was hospitalized on 11 September after suddenly losing his sight, the ability to speak and control over his movements.


After four days, he was transferred to a hospital in Germany where doctors say his life is no longer in danger and that the damage to his body and nervous system should be reversible.


They said his symptoms made it “highly plausible” that he was poisoned by a nerve agent. Certain recreational drugs could have had this effect but only in such a volume that they would have to have been taken with suicidal intent, and there was no indication of this in Verzilov’s case, the doctors said.


Pussy Riot says it is convinced that Verzilov was deliberately poisoned.


“Given Pyotr Verzilov’s sensitive activities, a full and impartial investigation into this strange case of poisoning is indispensable,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “All possible light should be shone on this affair, as it should be on the murders of the three Russian journalists that he was investigating.”


The three journalists – documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, war reporter Orkhan Dzhemal and cameraman Kirill Radchenko – were investigating the presence of Russian mercenaries and mining companies in the Central African Republic when they were murdered there in late July.


No suspects have so far been arrested and several groups of journalists and activists are investigating their deaths. Verzilov, who was a friend of Rastorguyev, has also raised funding for an on-the-spot investigation.


Mediazona, the news site that Verzilov co-founded, is a leading source of information about police and judicial abuses in Russia. But it was his participation in the Pussy Riot protest at the World Cup final that attracted the media’s attention this summer.


He and the three other Pussy Riot members briefly interrupted the final by invading the pitch to draw attention to their demands, which included the release of Russian political prisoners. They were sentenced to 15 days in prison.


Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.