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Medical Examiner Refuses to Release Russian Ambassador's Cause of Death

By Shaye Weaver | March 13, 2017 6:03pm
 Vitaly Churkin died on Feb. 20 at 64.
Vitaly Churkin died on Feb. 20 at 64.
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The Mission of the Russian Federation to UN

UPPER EAST SIDE — The city's Chief Medical Examiner is refusing to reveal the cause of death for a U.N. ambassador who died in his office in February, obliging the federal government's request to keep it quiet.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, 64, died unexpectedly on Feb. 20 inside the Russian Mission at 136 E. 67th St. "fulfilling his duties when the tragedy occurred," according to Russian officials.

Churkin had suffered a heart attack, local authorities and sources told media outlets at the time, but no official cause of death has been released since his death. The NYPD on Monday referred all questions regarding the matter to the United Nations.

On Friday, the Chief Medical Examiner's office released a statement saying it could not reveal the cause due to a request from the U.S. Department of State.

“The New York City Law Department has instructed the Office of Chief Medical Examiner to not publicly disclose the cause and manner of death of Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations," said Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office. "As outlined in formal requests from the United States Department of State, Ambassador Churkin’s diplomatic immunity survives his death."

When asked why the feds wanted the autopsy report kept a secret, a spokesman from the State Department said the office is not "in a position to comment or to provide any details on the autopsy consistent with our obligations under the Headquarters Agreement between the United States and the United Nations.”

James Donovan, the minister counselor for the U.S. Office of Host Country Affairs, defended the State Department's request, noting in a Feb. 24 letter to the Mayor's Office that a Headquarters Agreement gives Churkin immunity so that the U.S. must treat him with "due respect" and "take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity" even after death.

In a follow-up letter on March 1, Donovan stated that "new information" has convinced his office that "now more than ever before that there are important considerations that counsel in favor of nondisclosure of this information."

It's not clear what new details he was referring to, but Donovan went on to say that "disclosure by the city is discretionary," and "we do not view release of the information to be legally necessary."

The Russian Federation raised concerns over an autopsy that had already been performed after city officials made statements to the media about Churkin's medical history, according to Donovan's most recent letter.

The Russian Mission wrote a tribute to Churkin on its website, but it does not mention the manner of his death. Representatives of the Mission did not return a request for comment on Monday.

"For the Mission’s staff and for all who had a chance to work under the able leadership of this outstanding, energetic and respectable diplomat, it was a terrible shock," the tribute reads. "It is impossible to realize that Ambassador is no longer with us."

Churkin had served as Russia's permanent representative to the U.N. since 2006, and was ambassador to Belgium and Canada before that.

He was known for being critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the New York Times, which reported there were no indications of foul play in Churkin's death.

Just three months prior to his death, a security officer at the Russian consulate named Sergei Krivov, 63, was found dead with head trauma in the East 91st Street consulate building.

There was no criminality suspected, and the medical examiner's office said he died of natural causes.