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Second journalist 'drugged' by Russians

London Guardian | September 10 2004

A Georgian journalist detained by Russian authorities after reporting on the Beslan school massacre was drugged, according to medical experts, raising fresh concerns about press freedom in Russia.

She is the second journalist to claim she was poisoned while trying to cover the school siege in North Ossetia - earlier this week Anna Politkovskaya, one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critics, said she had been drugged on a flight to a nearby airport.

Nana Lezhava of the independent Georgian broadcaster Rustavi-2 said she had slept for 24 hours while in the custody of the Russian authorities after being given coffee in her cell, and felt ill when she woke up.

Gela Lezhava of the Georgian drug research institute told reporters that urine samples taken from Lezhava after her release this week showed traces of tranquilisers, and that he suspected the journalist was drugged.

The tests were conducted at the request of Rustavi-2, which aired an interview with Lezhava and her colleague, cameraman Levan Tetvadze, earlier this week in which she complained feeling weak.

"On Monday evening I was offered coffee. I drunk it and woke up only at 8pm next day. I don't remember how I was carried into the isolation ward of federal security service," she said in the interview.

Politkovskaya of the daily Novaya Gazeta told a similar story this week. She fell ill after drinking tea given to her on a flight from Moscow to Beslan to report on the school siege.

Writing for the Guardian this week, Politkovskaya told how the nurse in the hospital she was taken to had told her she had been poisoned.

"The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was 'almost hopeless'. Then she whispers, 'My dear, they tried to poison you.' All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed - on orders 'from on high', say the doctors."

Lezhava and Tetvadze were accused of violating visa rules when they entered Russia from neighbouring Georgia and prevented from covering the aftermath of the tragedy. Rustavi-2 maintained the pair did not need visas to enter Russia.

Both journalists were released on Wednesday after the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, personally contacted the Mr Putin. No charges have been brought against them and their employers claim their detention was a "gross violation" of their human rights.

The coverage of the Beslan massacre has divided the Russian press with state TV channels failing to cover the first hour of the horror unfolding last Friday morning. They have also been accused of holding back on criticism of the way Mr Putin handled the siege.

And in the press there have also been recriminations with Raf Shakirov, the editor of daily newspaper Izvestiya, sacked after his reports proved too raw and emotional for its Kremlin-loving metal magnate proprietor.

Politkovskaya, who has a reputation for fearless writing about the Chechnya war, said she feared the Russian media were stepping back into a "Soviet abyss".

She pointed out that the Russian Union of Journalists conspicuously failed to protest against the sacking of Shakirov.

"We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available.

"For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit," she said. Another journalist and critic of the Kremlin's policy in Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky of Radio Free Europe, never made it to Beslan after being detained by Russian authorities.

Research released this week showed that just 13% of Russians trust media reports about the tragedy, in which at least 335 people died.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents expressed disbelief in the reports, according to the poll conducted across Russia by the St Petersburg-based Independent Analytical Centre last weekend.

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