Russian journalist cleared of slander in road controversy

Court overturns verdict against Mikhail Beketov, who accused government official over forest clearance near Moscow

A Russian court today overturned a slander verdict against Mikhail Beketov, a crusading journalist who was severely beaten after criticising the construction of a government-backed road through mature woodland near Moscow.

Beketov, 52, was convicted last month after accusing a local official of setting fire to his car in revenge for articles he wrote about plans for the controversial road through Khimki forest. The reporter was fined 5,000 roubles (£100) but escaped payment on a technicality. However, a court in Khimki cancelled the verdict after Beketov's lawyers appealed, citing lack of evidence. "This is a great victory," said Andrei Stolbunov, the journalist's lawyer, after the hearing.

The conviction had provoked outrage among human rights defenders. The journalist, who was editor of the local weekly, Khimkinskaya Pravda, was left brain-damaged and unable to speak as a result of the attack. Doctors had to amputate one of his legs and four fingers, and extracted shards of skull from his brain.

The Khimki road project, which would see part of a new 450-mile motorway linking Moscow to St Petersburg cutting through a 2,500-acre oak forest near the town, has the backing of powerful political and business interests.

The project acquired fresh notoriety last month after two unidentified men beat Konstantin Fetisov, an activist protesting against the plans, around the head with a baseball bat, leaving him in a coma.

Two days later, Oleg Kashin, a journalist with the Kommersant newspaper, was attacked outside his home in Moscow by two men who struck him 56 times with a metal bar. Kashin had also criticised the project.

Yevgeniya Chirikova, the leading protester against the motorway, welcomed the decision to cancel the slander verdict. However, she told the Guardian: "In order to get one fair court decision, two more broken heads were needed. If it wasn't for the huge public outcry after the attacks on Fetisov and Kashin, this would not have happened. Beketov would have been handed some … monstrous sentence."

Some tree-felling began in the forest this year but President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the road project to be frozen in August, saying the "heightened resonance" it had provoked demanded "further civic and expert decisions".

The Vedomosti newspaper quoted Kremlin sources yesterday as saying Medvedev would soon announce the road was to go ahead as first planned, cutting a swath through Khimki forest.

The prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said today that a final decision would be taken only after the transport and natural resources ministries had completed reports.


Tom Parfitt in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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