Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin reopened an investigation Wednesday into whether charges should be filed against survivors of a party of government officials who were illegally hunting endangered sheep when their helicopter crashed in January.
Bastrykin’s announcement came as an outcry grew over his decision to quietly close the investigation in August and — embarrassingly — just a day after his committee awarded Altai Governor Alexander Berdnikov, whose deputy is a suspect in the case, with a medal for cooperating with investigators.
The Investigative Committee first opened an investigation into the illegal hunt of argali sheep in the Altai republic in April, about three months after the crash of the helicopter carrying Altai Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannykh and the president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin. While Bannykh was among the four survivors, Kosopkin was one of seven people who died in the crash.
The investigation was closed in August because “all the people who can be charged in this case … died during the crash,” while the survivors, including Bannykh, “did not take any actions to pursue or shoot the animals,” Bastrykin said in a written statement sent to the Altai legislature after local lawmakers asked him for an update on the investigation in September.
The statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, lists five deceased people as suspects of illegal hunting by helicopter, is dated Oct. 13 and is signed by Bastrykin himself.
The statement only surfaced last weekend, inciting public outrage over Bastrykin’s decision to blame only the dead for breaking the law.
Moreover, Berdnikov, the Altai governor who also has been implicated in the hunting trip by national media, received a medal from the Investigative Committee on Tuesday during Police Day celebrations. The medal, “For Cooperation,” was presented to Berdnikov by Bastrykin’s deputy Andrei Mushatov for Berdnikov’s “cooperation in the effective work of investigators,” according to a statement on the regional government’s official web site.
On Wednesday, the Investigative Committee suddenly showed interest in the case again, with Bastrykin ordering “procedural control authorities to closely look at the case’s materials … and check the completeness of the investigation,” according to a statement posted on the committee’s web site.
In response to a phone inquiry of what this means and whether the case had been reopened, a spokeswoman refused to comment and hung up.
A few hours later, the committee posted a statement on the web site saying Bastrykin had reopened the case.
Environmentalists, whose efforts helped prompt investigators to open a criminal case in the first place, criticized Bastrykin’s explanation to Altai lawmakers that the surviving passengers were not part of the hunt. “Kosopkin and Bannykh were the two most highly placed officials on the helicopter, and the hunt never would have happened if they had opposed pursuing the animals,” said Alexei Vaisman, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund.
But reopening the case at the height of a public outcry smacks of a public relations stunt, said security analyst Andrei Soldatov. “They are likely to close the case again when the situation quiets down again, like they did after reopening the case of Shchekochikhin,” Soldatov said, referring to the mysterious death of Novaya Gazeta reporter and State Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin in 2003.
Alexei Gribkov, an environmentalist from Barnaul in the neighboring Altai region, said a thorough investigation was unlikely because it would probably “unravel many nasty details implicating people from beyond the region, like Kosopkin’s superiors.”
He said it was still not clear who had financed the hunt in the Gazpromavia-owned helicopter. “For us, it is very important to set a precedent with this … hunt because it was certainly not the first incident,” he said by telephone.
Berdnikov, whose term expires in January, flew to Moscow on Wednesday to attend President Dmitry Medvedev’s state-of-the nation address Thursday. He was unavailable for comment, said a woman who answered the phone at Altai’s representative office in Moscow.