By Bellingcat Investigation Team, September 2019
- In the first part of this joint investigation, we disclosed that the assassin of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili detained by German police traveled on a valid Russian passport issued under the fake identity of “Vadim Sokolov”. We concluded that the usage of a validly issued passport in the name of a non-existent person indicated a link between the assassin and the Russian state.
- Interim reporting by Der Spiegel and other media has disclosed that the suspect initially traveled from Moscow to Paris and then on to Warsaw, where he rented a hotel room for five days during which he traveled on to Berlin – suggesting he initially intended to return to Warsaw following the Berlin operation.
- In the interim, we have obtained information that a Russian-issued SIM card was found at “Sokolov”’s hotel room in Warsaw. German and Polish investigators are reportedly analyzing the data linked to that SIM card.
- In a report from 26 September 2019, the New York Times (NYT) reported that German investigators received a tip from an anonymous source claiming the suspect’s real identity is that of Vladimir Stepanov, a former police officer from St. Petersburg who in 2006 was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in jail for being part of an organized crime group that murdered two people at the orders of a business rival. The NYT quotes a Western intelligence agency as giving credence to the tip, and the NYT partially corroborates this hypothesis by referring to a facial recognition analysis that compared media photographs of Stepanov from the time of his court proceedings to the German police-issued killer’s photograph. German police are cited as yet-undetermined whether Vladimir Stepanov is in fact the person behind the Vadim Sokolov persona. The NYT report did not put its weight behind the hypothesis that Stepanov is Sokolov, but did introduce the mysterious, anonymous tip to the public.
Contrary to the findings of the unnamed Western agency, Bellingcat and its investigative partners Der Spiegel, The Insider and The Dossier Center have concluded that the suspect held by German police is unlikely to be Vladimir Stepanov. This conclusion is based on a weeks-long investigation that analyzed – and ultimately rejected – the hypothesis that the killer and the former police major serving a 24-year sentence are the same person. The same finding was reached independently by the Petersburg-based outlet Fontanka, who claim in September 26 report that Vladimir Stepanov remains in a Russian prison.
In the process of this investigation, Bellingcat and its partners have obtained conclusive evidence that the suspect – whose real identity is still being sought by our team – traveled to Berlin under a cover identity with the active support of the Russian state that created a comprehensive, back-dated paper-trail for this fictitious persona in order to help him obtain the necessary travel and insurance documents, and – crucially – a Schengen visa. These findings preclude the hypothesis that this was an organized crime operation, or even a semi-official operation that received only limited support from individual corrupt officials.
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