Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin apologized Thursday for what he called an "emotional outburst" during a recent conversation with Sergei Sokolov of the Novaya Gazeta, The Moscow Times reported
Bastrykin denied making a death threat but said he had lost his temper, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"I haven't got the right to lose my temper, but I did lose my temper," Bastrykin said in a meeting with journalists. "For that, I apologize."
The alleged confrontation between Bastrykin and Sokolov was over an article in which Sokolov accused Bastrykin and other law enforcement officials of "covering up" the crimes of a gang that murdered 12 people in the North Caucasus town of Kushchyovskaya in 2011. The article said one reputed member of the gang received only a $4,600 fine.
The Times said Bastrykin had reportedly summoned Sokolov to a duel but then backed down.
Dmitry Muratov, the Novaya Gazeta editor in chief, said in an open letter Bastrykin had threatened Sokolov after having him driven to forest in the Moscow region.
Bastrykin told Izvestia the incident didn't occur in a forest.
In a news release, Human Rights Watch said: "Human Rights Watch is profoundly concerned that a top-level Russian official has threatened a journalist. Russia's international partners should raise with the Russian leadership the increasingly hostile conditions for journalists in the country and urge Russia to foster a favorable working climate for independent press."
HRW also criticized the detention of five journalists Wednesday who had protested Bastrykin's alleged threats.
The human rights group noted the journalists, who were released, had been detained under Russia's new regulations on demonstrations, which stipulate individual pickets can be regarded as organized public events if they appear to "have attributes of planned collective action" and therefore must provide advance notification.
"The detention of these journalists clearly shows how the new law can be used to suppress freedom of expression in Russia," Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher for Russia at Human Rights Watch, said in the release. "Even if a law gives police powers of detention, to use them to suppress the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights makes that use arbitrary and abusive."