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An investigation has found that an agent linked to a political assassination team had been secretly tracking Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov for nearly a year before he was fatally shot.
Nemtsov was a fierce opponent of President Vladimir Putin. His murder in 2015 was the most famous political killing since Putin came to power.
The Russian authorities deny any involvement in Nemtsov’s murder.
The BBC, and the websites Bellingcat and The Insider have all obtained evidence that Nemtsov was secretly tracked during the 13 trips he made before he was killed.
Boris Nemtsov rose to prominence in the 1990s, serving as deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, and was widely believed to be Yeltsin’s successor.
Instead, Putin took power, and Nemtsov was pushed to the fringes of Russian politics. Nemtsov led effective campaigns aimed at exposing corruption and condemned Russias 2014 attack on eastern Ukraine.
On February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was shot dead, just meters from the Kremlin, just days before a demonstration he intended to lead to protest the war.
Soon, five people of Chechen origin were arrested, and later tried for his murder. But the official investigations did not answer the two most pressing questions: who ordered his murder and why?
Seven years later, the BBC, in collaboration with investigative journalism websites Bellingcat and The Insider, is able to uncover evidence that a government agent linked to a clandestine hit team was tracking Nemtsov across Russia in the months before his death.
Using leaked train and airline reservations, the investigation shows that the client tracked Mr. Nemtsov on at least 13 trips.
The last time Mr. Nemtsov was tracked down was on 17 February 2015, just days before the assassination.
According to his identity documents, the client’s name is Valery Sukharev. All evidence indicates that at that time he was working with Russias main security agency, the FSB. Among the agency’s mandate is dealing with political threats on behalf of the Kremlin, including monitoring people’s movements within the country.
All flight and train data are stored in an FSB database known as Magistral. But the database records not only the movements of people that Russian agents might want to track, but it can also detect the movements of the agents themselves – people like Sukharev.
This kind of information is usually leaked on the black market, and eventually finds its way into the hands of journalists.
“In a corrupt society like Russia, [الماجيسترال] A double-edged sword.”
“It allows people like us to go and track down these same spies, these FSB officers.”
Bellingcat purchased some of the original data used by this investigation through intermediaries within Russia. These middlemen obtained data from corrupt officials familiar with Magistral. The BBC also used data given to it free of charge by sources authorized to view copies of Magistral.
Bellingcat had previously used data from Magistral to investigate assassination attempts in Russia. Investigations uncovered evidence of a secret assassination squad within the FSB that targeted opponents of the Kremlin. The Russian government has long denied the allegations.
As part of this investigation, we obtained details of Sukharev’s flight and train reservations, and when we compared them to the known movements of Boris Nemtsov, a clear and unmistakable pattern emerged.
The majority of Nemtsov’s travels were from Moscow, where he lived, to Yaroslavl, 272 kilometers northeast of the capital, the seat of the regional parliament of which he was a member.
It appears that Sukharev had advance knowledge of Nemtsov’s plans because he usually arrived in the same city minutes or hours before Nemtsov’s.
One trip in particular shows how closely Nemtsov was followed. In the summer of 2014, Nemtsov traveled to Siberia. He booked his flight for July 2, just after midnight. Exactly ten minutes later, Sukharev bought a ticket to the same destination, Novosibirsk, and arrived on the same day as Nemtsov.
According to Gurzev, FSB agents can use Magistral to track a target with such accuracy.
“If you’re an FSB officer, you’ll be able to go into that database and see all the tickets someone buys – the tickets they bought in the past and those they buy at the same time,” Gurzev told the BBC.
It is not unusual for Russian security agencies to go after prominent opposition leaders.
But Sukharev was not just a small client doing a chore. During an earlier investigation, Bellingcat linked it to what appeared to be two assassination attempts, both targeting prominent Putin critics.
The first target was Nemtsov’s friend and pupil Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician who pointed the finger at the Kremlin in the weeks after Nemtsov’s murder.
In May 2015, Sukharov was part of a team that went to the Russian city of Kazan at the same time as Kara-Murza. Two days after Kara-Murza returned to Moscow, he collapsed and could not breathe. He fell into a coma and some parts of his body failed, but he later recovered.
He was poisoned a second time in 2017, and recovered again. The Russian government rejects the allegations of its clients’ involvement in the two poisoning incidents.
The second target was Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader currently in prison, whose anti-corruption videos have reached millions of Russians.
In 2020, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent “novichok” developed in the Soviet Union, a gas banned under international law. Bellingcat has found that the FSB team followed Navalny to the eastern city of Tomsk, just before the poisoning.
The site found that Sukharev was not part of the team that actually tracked Navalny to the ground. But phone records show that in the months before Navalny’s poisoning, Sukharev exchanged 145 phone calls or text messages with at least four members of that team, as well as a high-ranking FSB officer.
Four of these men were among seven proxy agents subsequently sanctioned by the US and UK governments, for their involvement in the assassination attempt.
The Russian government has long denied any role in the poisoning of Navalny.
The BBC has asked the Russian government and the FSB for comment on evidence that shows an agent linked to a hit squad was tracking Nemtsov.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied: “All this has nothing to do with the Russian government. It seems to be a new slander.” The FSB declined to comment.
Investigated by: Christo Gurzev, Yordan Tsalov, Roman Dobrokhotov
aProducers: Allium Leroy, Antoine Shearer, Bertram Hill, Charlotte Bamient
Executive Producer: Daniel Adamson