NEW YORK—The disclosure that Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov had been investigating the deaths of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic prior to his reported poisoning on September 11 makes clear this attack was a direct effort to intimidate and silence Verzilov and any others who would seek to shine a light on the Russian government’s activities, PEN America said in a statement today.

Independent Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta reported that on the day he was poisoned, Verzilov was to receive a highly anticipated report regarding an investigation he had been conducting into the murder of three Russian journalists—Alexander Rastorguev, Orkham Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko—in the Central African Republic. The three journalists were reportedly investigating the private military company Wagner, which has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Putin, when they were murdered in what the Russian government has maintained was an unrelated robbery.

“If Verzilov was indeed poisoned in direct retaliation for his investigations into the murder of these journalists, it demonstrates once again the contemptible lengths to which Russian authorities will go to violently silence those who would attempt to hold the government to account,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs.  “Seeking and speaking truth in today’s Russia can have dire consequences. This was not only an atrocious attack on one man, but an effort to squash free expression and menace all potential critics into silence and submission.”

Since his hospitalization on September 11 in Moscow Verzilov’s condition has stabilized; on September 15 he was transferred to Berlin’s Charité hospital, and was released on September 26 and given German police protection. Doctors treating Verzilov at Charité confirmed that his symptoms strongly indicated poisoning, but were unable to identify the type of poison used against him. Verzilov is a member of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk collective of artists and activists advocating for freedom of expression in Russia. He is also one of the publishers of the independent news website Mediazona, which investigates Russia’s criminal justice system.

In 2014, Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, with Pyotr Verzilov serving as interpreter, spoke at the PEN America Literary Gala advocating for the rights of people in prison, including Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. PEN America has also led a robust campaign calling for the release of 2017 Freedom to Write Award honoree Oleg Sentsov, currently on hunger strike in a Russian prison.   

###

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org