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Investigation implicates ‘Navalny Poison Squad’ in North Caucasus deaths

28 January 2021

A Bellingcat investigation has connected Navalny’s alleged assassins with the suspicious deaths of three men, including Kabardino-Balkaria–based independent journalist Timur Kuashev, Daghestani Lezgi activist Ruslan Magomedragimov, and political commentator and activist Nikita Isayev.

The investigative outlet reports that a ‘clandestine unit within the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute’ which, in a previous investigation had been implicated in the attempted poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny — can be connected with three suspicious deaths. 

The alleged group of assassins, whose identities and modus operandi appeared to be uncovered when Navalny, posing as a high-ranking Russian official, called one of his alleged would-be killers and had him explain the methods and structure of the assassination programme. 

Using information uncovered during previous investigations, Bellingcat has traced the travels of alleged members of the programme locating them near Kuashev and Magomedragimov close to the time of the men’s deaths, as well as obtaining evidence that they trailed Isayev in the year before he died

Death in Nalchik

Timur Kuashev, a Nalchik-based journalist who regularly covered abuses by the government and security forces, was found dead on 1 August 2014. Photos obtained by Bellingcat reportedly show ‘symmetrical bruises on his upper cheeks, possibly from fingers clutching his head from behind, and a haematoma on his left eyelid’. Additionally, a second coroner’s report identified injection marks in his armpit. 

The deceased journalist’s family also noted a series of other irregularities in the case, including missing phone records. According to Russian officials, no traces of poison were discovered and his cause of death was officially listed as heart failure.

Analysing travel data, Bellingcat reported that several FSB operatives from the alleged assassination squad arrived in Nalchik within a month of Kuashev’s death. One of these men, Ivan Osipov, a high-ranking FSB officer, also left Nalchik the morning that Kuashev’s body was discovered. 

The travel data, in combination with ‘confidential documents from official prosecutorial investigation provided by an insider source’, Bellingcat concluded, ‘strongly suggests that his death was the result of a targeted poisoning operation by the same core FSB team that poisoned Aleksey Navalny in 2020’. 

A similar case

Ruslan Magomedragimov was found dead on March 24, 2015, in a suburb of the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala. Magomedragimov was a prominent Lezgi activist and a member of the Sadval (Unity) Movement, which agitated for Lezgi national statehood.

As in the case of Kuashev, Magomedragimov’s official cause of death was listed as heart failure. Bellingcat reports that a local coroner stated that his death was caused by asphyxiation and that there were no signs of violence on the body. After receiving his body, Magomedragimov’s relatives reported that they discovered what appeared to be two small injection marks on his neck.  

Analysing travel data, Bellingcat tracked the location of the alleged assassination squad, including Ivan Osipov, to Makhachkala in the weeks preceding Magomedragimov’s death. 

‘While the datapoints and travel overlaps in Magomedragimov’s case are fewer than those in Kuashev’s, they are not sufficient for a standalone conclusive assessment that he was killed by the FSB poison squad’, the Bellingcat investigation reads. ‘Yet the strikingly similar circumstances surrounding the deaths of these two activists from the North Caucasus, including claims around the use of injections to induce death broadly mis-attributable to heart failure, are notable.’

Train to Moscow

On 16 November 2019, while on a train travelling from the central Russian city of Tambov to Moscow, Nikita Isayev fell violently ill. He was dead within hours. The official cause of death was heart failure. 

Relatives of the political commentator and head of the New Russia political organisation told Bellingcat that he had been ‘restless’ before his death, and an anonymous friend of the man told the investigative outlet that Isayev had been planning to leave the country. 

Bellingcat identified at least five members of the alleged assassination squad who trailed Isayev for a year before his death, though, according to the investigation, ‘the existing travel databases’ that Bellingcat consulted ‘do not show that any of these five operatives travelled under their known identities to Tambov during the days Isayev died’.

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