Beaten Russian Reporter Convicted of Slander

STARBEYEVO, Russia -- A muckraking Russian reporter left handicapped by a 2008 beating was convicted Wednesday of defaming an official he criticized when writing about highway corruption and the destruction of the Khimki forest near Moscow.

Mikhail Beketov's supporters said the verdict was just another sign of the degradation of media freedom in Russia. Another journalist covering the same story was beaten so badly over the weekend that doctors placed him into an artificial coma to protect his brain.

Beketov, a reporter for the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, irked authorities with his articles about corruption involving the Khimki forest, part of which officials have torn down to make way for a highway to St. Petersburg that may or may not be built.

Beketov now uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak after a vicious beating by two unidentified assailants near his home left him unconscious in the snow and forced doctors to amputate his leg. His supporters claim the attack was retaliation for articles criticizing local authorities.

One of the officials Beketov criticized was Vladimir Strelchenko, the mayor of Khimki, a town just outside Moscow that is home to the forest. Beketov gave a 2007 television interview in which he accused Strelchenko of being involved in blowing up his car.

Strelchenko sued for slander, and the court in Khimki issued a 5,000-ruble ($160) fine Wednesday but said Beketov didn't have to pay because of a technicality.

Beketov's assistant said he would appeal.

"There's nothing human left in this man," Lyudmila Fedotova, head of the Beketov Foundation support group, said of Strelchenko.

The mayor, in court on Tuesday, declared he felt sorry for Beketov but also compelled to forge ahead with charges.

Aided by an artificial leg, Beketov is slowly learning to walk again. After the verdict, he took a few steps for a reporter visiting his home a mile outside Khimki.

The scandal over the highway was also a chief topic in the writings of Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the respected Kommersant newspaper who was brutally attacked Saturday in Moscow.

Doctors on Wednesday voiced cautious optimism that Kashin, who was bludgeoned on the head, arms and legs, was improving, Russian media reported.

Russia has seen a wave of assaults on journalists and activists, and in most cases the perpetrators are never found.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who has promised to crack down on corruption and strengthen the rule of law, has ordered that Kashin's attackers be found and punished. A brutal video of the attack on Kashin reportedly emerged, and Medvedev said earlier this week it was clear that Kashin was attacked for his work.

Meanwhile, police claimed Wednesday that an attack on another journalist that occurred Monday was staged, but Russian news agencies quoted reporter Anatoly Adamchuk as insisting it was not.

Police in the Moscow suburb of Zhukovsky are investigating the attack on Adamchuk by two men outside his weekly newspaper office in suburban Moscow early Monday. Adamchuk was hospitalized with a concussion after it, a colleague wrote on the website of the paper, Zhukovskiye Vesti.

"It was Adamchuk who asked his 19-year-old student to help stage the attack," Moscow region police said in a statement, adding that Adamchuk allegedly paid the student 1,000 rubles ($32) to hit him.

Last week, Adamchuk wrote about schoolchildren who were detained by police after tying ribbons around trees in the forest near Zhukovsky, where another disputed highway is planned.