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By Virginie Coulloudon

On 3 July, State Duma Deputy and investigative journalist Yurii Shchekochikhin died in the Kremlin's Central Clinic after a week of treatment for an uncommon ailment -- an "unknown allergen," as his doctors put it. This vague diagnosis was enough to spark rumors that Shchekochikhin had in fact been poisoned -- retaliation for his ongoing investigations into corruption. The belief that Shchekochikhin had been murdered was rooted in the type of investigations he had been conducting lately. His sudden passing, in his 54th year, contributed to the growing perception that the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin had become even more corrupt and violent than it used to be.

Shchekochikhin was a genuinely representative figure of democratic Russia. He was born in June 1950 in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, where his father served in the army, and he spent his entire career in Moscow. His career and writings were the best examples of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and former President Boris Yeltsin's electoral democracy.

Shchekochikhin became famous in the summer of 1988, when he published in "Literaturnaya Gazeta" an interview with the then deputy head of the Interior Ministry's Organized Crime Department, Aleksandr Gurov.

Shchekochikhin and Gurov were among the first in the Soviet Union to denounce publicly the system of organized corruption that linked Soviet industry and the system of domestic trade to the police and the state. In his articles, Shchekochikhin ultimately revealed the real -- unofficial -- Soviet Union and Russia: the informal rules of clan logic and the secret prices for all official functions, the extent of endemic corruption at both the local and federal levels, and the key issue of burgeoning juvenile crime.

After a remarkable career in investigative journalism, Shchekochikhin took advantage of a second window of opportunity opened by the state and entered politics. This turning point dates back to 1989, when he was elected as a USSR People's Deputy from Ukraine and became a member of the Interregional Group. He was elected deputy in the Russian State Duma in 1995, where he joined the Yabloko parliamentary group. Since then, Shchekochikhin was a Duma deputy and one of the most visible members of Grigorii Yavlinskii's party.

After his re-election in December 1999, he was appointed deputy chairman of the Duma's Security Committee. He primarily worked on issues related to organized crime and corruption, and he advised the United Nations on all issues related to international organized-crime groups linked to the Russian mafia.

Shchekochikhin had already received a death threat last February. The threat came immediately after he published a detailed article on the so-called Tri Kita affair. Tri Kita is the name of a major furniture store in Moscow, some of whose managers are suspected of weapons smuggling, laundering large sums of money in Europe, and corrupting officials in the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office. Only four days after the article appeared, Yabloko issued a press release making this threat public and denouncing the atmosphere of intimidation that accompanies the work of investigative journalists. "If the life of a journalist and his family is the price to pay for telling the truth, then there is no freedom of speech in the country," Yabloko's press release declared.

Shchekochikhin had been doggedly investigating the Tri Kita affair over the past three years. He wrote detailed articles in "Novaya Gazeta" and used his position at the State Duma to question high-ranking officials and request official documents and materials related to the case. As of today, only one thing is certain: Shchekochikhin was embarrassing too many people.

The Tri Kita case began in 2000 with what then appeared to be merely a case of tax evasion linked to imports of European-made furniture. Custom fees represent more than one-third of the state income in Russia. This explains why particular attention is devoted to smuggling, and the State Customs Committee (GTK) has one of Russia's most powerful police forces. On 18 February 2002, in "Novaya Gazeta," Shchekochikhin cited special police investigator Pavel Zaitsev, then in charge of the Tri Kita case, as saying that the case involved $20 million worth of tax evasion. Soon after the Tri Kita story broke, rumors spread that top officials from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the GTK, and Rosvooruzhenie (the state arms exporter) were involved in the case. The smuggling case rapidly became a conflict that pitted the Interior Ministry and the GTK against the Prosecutor-General's Office.

In early 2002, the Duma's Security Committee in general, and Shchekochikhin in particular, sent an official request to the Prosecutor-General's Office to meet and discuss the case in detail. A number of unusual decisions attracted their attention. First, the Prosecutor-General's Office unexpectedly accused Interior Ministry special investigator Zaitsev of abuse of power. Zaitsev allegedly violated the civil rights of Tri Kita employees by searching the company's premises without prior notice, often at night. The Prosecutor-General's Office claims that it received numerous complaints regarding Zaitsev's methods. When Shchekochikhin asked why the Prosecutor-General's Office decided to focus on this particular investigator while it was getting so many similar claims and requests every month, he received no answer. Second, since Zaitsev was under investigation, the Prosecutor-General's Office took over the entire case. Out of some 120 volumes of documents that Zaitsev had put together, only 20 have been kept by the Prosecutor-General's Office, Shchekochikhin claimed on 18 February 2002. What happened to the other 100 volumes is unknown.

Later, more elements were added to the case. Zaitsev, who was cleared of all charges of abuse of power by the Moscow City Court, was eventually convicted by Russia's Supreme Court. In May 2003, Sergei Pereverzev, president of the Furniture Business Association, was killed a few days before he could testify in court against the owners of Tri Kita and in favor of two GTK officials who were also being accused of abuse of power. Pereverzev was murdered in his hospital room following a serious car accident that he had managed to survive. A month earlier -- on 2 April, in an interview with "Moskovskii Komsomolets," Pereverzev said that he had been threatened. Finally, the judge in charge of the GTK officials' case was also threatened. He received a letter containing a death threat that Shchekochikhin showed on the independent TVS television channel on 4 June 2003.

The last time Shchekochikhin described the case in detail was on 2 June in "Novaya Gazeta." He wrote: "Writing all this, I feel like a second-grade student who keeps repeating the same lesson. How long can one write about the same thing?" It was exactly one month before he died.

He once again mentioned that, while police officials are accused of abuse of power, witnesses murdered, and judges threatened, smugglers are free. Arms smuggling continues, as does the war in Chechnya. Today, TVS is closed, officially for economic reasons, and Shchekochikhin is dead, after suffering from what has been officially labeled an "unknown allergen." It is possible, however, that he really died from the endemic disease of corruption in Russia -- a disease that he was among the first to diagnose.

Virginie Coulloudon is associate director of the Communications Division and director of Regional Analysis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Prague.

...BUT NO COMMON POLICY ON WATER USE IN OB-IRTYSH BASIN. Lack of agreement among Kazakhstan, Russia, and China on water-use policy in the Ob-Irtysh basin is resulting in the exhaustion of the region's water resources, according to participants in a conference on the rivers in the basin that ended in Ust-Kamenogorsk on 15 July, RIA-Novosti reported. The conference of scientists and officials of Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine drew up an appeal to the governments and legislators of Kazakhstan and Russia, pointing out that the lack of detailed programs to improve the environmental situation in the Ob-Irtysh basin threatens the health of the population and the viability of the ecosystem. The appeal advises the two countries to take advantage of the good relations presently existing among the states using the waters of the basin. China is reported to be planning an extensive development of irrigation-based agriculture using the waters of the Black Irtysh River, which will further complicate matters in the basin. In 2000 by Kazakhstan's Environmental Protection Ministry, Russia's Natural Resources Ministry, and the French Agency for Development signed a memorandum of cooperation for cross-border management of the Irtysh. France has provided a 1 million-euro ($1.18 million) grant to set up a system of water monitoring on the Irtysh River that is scheduled to be completed in October. BB

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS ENVIRONMENT MINISTER... President Leonid Kuchma appointed Serhiy Polakov as Ukraine's new environment minister on 15 July, Interfax reported. Polakov was proposed by the Popular Democratic Party caucus in the Verkhovna Rada. He formerly served as coal-industry minister and Donetsk Oblast governor. Kuchma sacked Polakov's predecessor, Vasyl Shevchuk, in June, blaming him for "serious shortcomings" in his work (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June 2003). AM

...AND WANTS UKRAINE TO HAVE STRONG PRESIDENCY AFTER POLITICAL REFORM. President Kuchma on 15 July criticized a constitutional-reform bill submitted to the Verkhovna Rada by a group of mostly opposition lawmakers, Interfax reported. "The parliamentary draft bill makes the president a puppet," he told journalists. "I want Ukraine to have a strong president." Kuchma speculated that if opposition Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko wins the next presidential election, he will be unable to form a government and will have to agree "to what the parliamentary majority offers him." Kuchma reiterated a previous pledge to withdraw his constitutional-reform bill if it continues to be a source of contention in parliament. "I will withdraw my draft not because I want to do this, but because I don't want to put this problem into a deadlock." AM

The Albanian and Italian press have published articles from time to time regarding trafficking in teenage Albanian boys to Italy and beyond for use as prostitutes or possibly for the sale of their organs. Typically, the boys and their families appear to be tricked by a trusted person who offers to take the youths to Italy or elsewhere in the EU with the promise of a good education or reunion with relatives already working abroad.

The Council of Europe is calling for a common European strategy in fighting against trafficking in human organs. Its report on the issue, presented on 25 June in the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, says kidney trafficking has become a hugely profitable business for organized crime. People in impoverished Eastern European countries such as Moldova and Ukraine are the most common victims of the illicit trade, which the council calls an attack against human dignity. The report says combating poverty in Eastern Europe is the best way to curb organ trafficking, and urges improved cooperation between rich Western countries and their Eastern neighbors.

How much food and clothing can $3,000 buy? Is it worth a lifetime of suffering? Many Eastern Europeans might have asked themselves such questions before deciding that, yes, it was worth sacrificing one of their kidneys in order to provide food and shelter for their families.

The growth of the human-organs black market in Europe has attracted the attention of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, whose report says that international criminal organizations are capitalizing on the growing demand for kidneys for transplants, and are pressuring poor Eastern Europeans into selling their organs. Rapporteur Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, who authored the report, says kidney traffickers have focused in particular on Europe's poorest country, Moldova, where the average monthly salary is less than $50.

Vermot-Mangold told RFE/RL that during a fact-finding mission to Moldova last year, she met with numerous people who had sold their kidneys via trafficking networks linking Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine, and Israel. "The donors are young men between 18 and 28 years of age. I did see 14 of these young men, [and] I had a deeper interview with four of these young men. They are living in very, very poor conditions in rural parts of the country, and poverty had driven some to sell their kidney for a sum of $2,500 to $3,000. And the recipient pays $100,000 and $250,000 per transplant. The rest of the money goes to international organized crime. It is international organized crime that takes the rest of the money, and the doctors who make the transplants," Vermot-Mangold said.

The report says a chronic organ shortage means between 15 percent and 30 percent of European patients die while waiting for a kidney transplant. The average wait for a legal transplant is now three years. It is expected to increase to 10 years by 2010.

Vermot-Mangold said patients in need of a kidney sometimes find donors through front people for the criminal networks. Organ donors themselves occasionally end up acting as intermediaries. The report says most donors travel to Turkey, where transplants are conducted, usually at night, in rented hospital facilities.

Donors are sent home after only five days. The report says their state of health generally deteriorates due to a lack of "any kind of medical follow-up, [as well as] hard physical work and an unhealthy lifestyle." While the report does not directly identify where the buyers come from, it quotes an article published in "The Lancet" magazine, which says that some Israeli transplant recipients have purchased kidneys from people living in Estonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, and Romania.

Vermot-Mangold told RFE/RL that Ukrainians and even Iraqis have also resorted to selling their organs. Vermot-Mangold said the situation raises a number of questions: Should the poor provide for the rich? Should poverty compromise human dignity and health? She said that organ selling is unethical, and should be replaced as much as possible by organ donation.

But, is organ selling illegal? The question remains murky, even though the Council of Europe has made part of its legal "acquis," or body of laws, the principle that the human body and its parts shall not be used for financial gain. The principle was enacted by the council's Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and was reiterated in an additional protocol opened for signature in 2002.

Under the council regulations, a convention becomes legally binding for those states that ratify it. Moldova ratified the Human Rights and Biomedicine convention in 2002. It came into force on its territory in March. Turkey has yet to ratify it.

However, the report says that even though organ trafficking is legally banned in member states, most countries' legal systems still have loopholes. Criminal responsibility is rarely specified clearly in national legislation.

Moldovan investigative journalist Alina Avram told RFE/RL that indifference on the part of the public and officials only compounds the laws' insufficiencies. "I hung a sign around my neck reading 'kidney for sale' and stood half a day outside several legal institutions in Chisinau -- the security service, Interior Ministry, the prosecutor's office -- to see how people and officials react. And they didn't react in any way. That's because, according to our current legislation, kidney donors [or sellers] are not punishable and officials are not supposed to take any action against them. I stood under the [Interior Ministry's] stairway and nobody paid attention to me, except for those policemen who were telling me to walk across the road, where the marketplace is, and sell my kidney there," Avram said.

So far, only two organ-trafficking cases have made it to the courts in Moldova. One case has been dragging on for two years. The second one was closed, with two traffickers being condemned to a five-year suspended sentence.

Avram said such lenient sentences are likely to make organ-trafficking victims even more reluctant to come forward. She added that organ trafficking and trafficking in women and children are two sides of the same problem, and are largely facilitated by government corruption. "Where there is trafficking in human beings there's also trafficking in organs. We reached this conclusion after we found out that both forms of trafficking are being organized by the same mafia clans and are covered by the same spheres of interest in the official state structures. And both [forms of trafficking] are investigated by the same officials," Avram said.

The report calls on Council of Europe bodies to develop a unified European strategy to combat organ trafficking, give organizational assistance to member states, and improve regional cooperation under bodies such as the Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings. But rapporteur Vermot-Mangold said the most important recommendation is in regard to the fight against poverty and corruption in Central and Eastern Europe. "The most important thing is to fight against poverty, so that people are not forced to sell [their] organs," she said. "So it is the first thing that development agencies, investment agencies [have to do], to have projects in these countries, for these people. And if you have too much corruption in these countries -- Moldova is a corrupt [country], it has a corrupt government -- so as long as you have corruption in these countries, it is very difficult to have investors. But to fight poverty is the first thing to do."

Vermot-Mangold added that media and international NGOs should play a more important part in raising awareness throughout the continent about the seriousness of organ trafficking.