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Russian investigator bodyguards threaten reporter, paper says

Editor says prominent reporter was ordered to leave the country after he received death threats from the bodyguards of Russia's chief investigator.

MOSCOW // A Russian newspaper editor says he ordered a prominent reporter to leave the country after he received death threats from the bodyguards of the chief investigator.

Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Russia's top investigative publication, said his deputy, Sergei Sokolov, faced threats from Sergei Bastrykin, the chairman of Russia's Investigative Committee.

"I ordered him to leave the country," Muratov said on Wednesday.

In an open letter to Mr Bastrykin, published in Novaya Gazeta, Muratov said the incident followed a public argument between the journalist and an official at a committee meeting to which Sokolov was invited to take part.

Muratov said the two argued over an opinion piece written by Sokolov in which the reporter accused Mr Bastrykin and other top officials - including Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, - of working in the interests of criminal gangs.

The investigators earlier said that many journalists had confused a man who was released by a court in southern Russia for his namesake who was allegedly involved in murders and is awaiting trial.

Muratov said Sokolov had apologised for the "emotional excesses" but Mr Bastrykin did not accept the apology.

Some time after the meeting, Muratov said, Mr Bastrykin's bodyguards forced the reporter into a car and drove him to a suburban forest.

"You know that the tough truth is that in an emotionally charged state you threatened my deputy's life. And even made a bad joke, noting that you will be investigating the case," Muratov wrote.

The scene, as described by Muratov, reminded Russians of the kidnapping methods used by criminal gangs in the 1990s and created public outrage even among the government's loyalists, adding to the pressure from anti-Kremlin street protests.

"My opinion is that Bastrykin should resign," Alexander Khinshtein, a prominent parliament member from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, wrote in his blog. There was no comment from Mr Bastrykin's office.

The Investigative Committee was created last year as part of former president Dmitry Medvedev's drive to create a Russian version of the US's FBI. It reports directly to the president and handles many high-profile cases.

Mr Bastrykin studied law at St Petersburg University the same year as Mr Putin and is seen as a member of his close entourage. Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president had learnt about the incident in the news but declined further comment.

Sokolov, a veteran reporter, also led an internal investigation into the unsolved murder of another Novaya Gazeta journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in October 2006.

Rights groups say 19 journalists, five of them from Novaya Gazeta, have been victims of contract killings in Russia since 2000, the year Putin was first elected president, and none of the masterminds of the murders has been jailed.

A group of journalists attempted to protest outside the Investigative Committee office in Moscow in solidarity with Sokolov and Novaya Gazeta on Wednesday, but were detained by police.