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Russian activists angry after attacked journalist’s death

Colleagues and friends Tuesday expressed shock and anger over the sudden death of Russian journalist and activist Mikhail Beketov, who was left crippled after a 2008 attack that has remained unpunished.

Beketov, who died Monday aged 55, had been painstakingly regaining his strength and abilities after assailants brutally attacked him with baseball bats and left him for dead in November 2008.

But five years later, those who ordered and carried out the crime have not been found despite a promise by Vladimir Putin in 2011 to “push the probe along”.

Beketov, who ran an independent and critical newspaper in the Moscow suburb town of Khimki, had strongly opposed the building of a new road through a local forest.

He connected the repeated attempts on his life to the local authorities, who had lobbied for the Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway project.

“Nobody is trying to find those who attacked him with baseball bats,” the head of Russia’s Glasnost Defence Foundation Alexei Simonov told AFP.

“There is no desire to find out who they are.”

Washington expressed condolences Tuesday for “the loss of this advocate for clean government and press freedom”.

Beketov “stood out among journalists taking on local corruption, upholding the freedom of expression, refusing to back down even in the face of threats to his personal security,” said State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell.

The United States is “urging redoubled efforts to identify and prosecute those responsible for the beating of this respected journalist,” he said.

Amnesty International said Beketov had been targeted after writing about corruption surrounding the highway and received multiple threats prior to the beating: his car was set on fire and his dog was killed.

“Everyone warned him against writing about this project,” the NGO’s Russian office said.

“This man went through such an ordeal,” rights activist Andrei Stolbunov, who ran a support fund for Beketov, wrote on Facebook.

“One piece of evidence in his criminal case is a piece of his skull. That he survived after laying in the cold for 15 hours can only be called a miracle.”

Despite colossal neurological damage, Beketov began to walk again last year and continued meeting with journalists, even though his ability to speak never fully returned.

It was not clear whether he died after suffering a heart attack while having a meal during a routine hospital check-up, or choked on a piece of food, Stolbunov said.

“What had happened to Mikhail was not a ‘beating’,” Khimki environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova wrote on her blog Tuesday. “They were killing him, they just didn’t finish him off.”

“Mikhail Beketov fought to the end,” the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday. “He was a symbol of a Russia that struggles. … Today it is more important than ever that his attackers be brought to justice. We demand the truth.”

The highway construction has ploughed on despite multiple protests, assaults on activists, and international scrutiny.

Activists clashed with construction workers for months, accusing them of working without any permits. The construction company in turn accused activists of stalling a legal project.

The prospective toll highway is half-owned by a construction company that belongs to Putin’s former judo sparring partner Arkady Rotenberg through an offshore company, according to Russian press. The other half is controlled by French construction company Vinci.

Beketov’s beating was followed by several others, including that of campaigner Konstantin Fetisov. A trial against the suspected mastermind of that crime, a local official, is still in progress.