Prominent Russian human rights lawyer, and reporter for crusading paper both die by assassin’s bullet

frontpageingressimage_40497.jpg Photo: Bellona Archive

Killed with him was journalist Anistasiya Baburova , 25, a young freelancer with the crusading Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which has lost four reporters since 2000 to assassinations. Dozens of other reporters have been killed since Vladimir Putin took power, making Russia, according to media watchdog organizations, one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in.

Markelov died on the spot, and Baburova died later in hospital.  

The broad-daylight shootings of Markelov and Baburova prompted grief and outrage in a country where lawyers and journalists who challenge the official version of justice are frequently targeted.

Markelov had fought the early release on Friday of former Russian Army Colonel Yury Budanov, a tank commander, whose strangling of an 18-year-old Chechen woman in 2000 put names and faces on the gruesome rights abuses in the war-wracked region, and was one of the first acts of violence perpetrated against civilian Chechens by the Russian army that ended in a prosecution.

Markelov had many enemies
Yet Markelov’s colleagues noted in interviews with western and Russian media, including Bellona Web, that Markelov handled so many controversial matters that case the Russian state in a bad light that it was nearly impossible to point preliminary fingers of blame.

“I am convinced that this must be connected to (…) Markelov’s professional activities, but I cannot say with which case specifically,” said renowned Russian human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt, a member of the board of directors of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, Bellona’s St.Petersburg office.

“He handled many controversial affairs.  He was a man of great courage and, perhaps, somewhat incautious.”

Schmidt added that: “I am terribly aggrieved by the murder of a colleague whom I knew personally (…) we treated one another with deep respect and I valued him greatly as a human being. Therefore, I am also suffering personally.”

Other of Markelov and Baburova’s colleagues noted that the brazen daylight attack bore the characteristics of a contract killing, a common phenomenon in Russia. Even so, the audacity of Mr. Markelov’s murder surprised some commentators.

“Even when organized crime in the 1990s was rampant, such a killing would have been considered bold and horrific,” said a commentator from Vesti television, a state owned channel

International calls for justice
Many other human rights activists compared the shooting to the 2006 killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya — a client of Markelov’s, a fellow enemy of rights abuses in Chechnya, and a reporter for Novaya Gazeta.

"This is a horrible, frightening crime," said Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US – based organisation which itself has been harassed by the Russian state.

"For victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya he was a hero," Lokshina said.

HRW’s home office in New York, also denounced the murder, saying the international community should push Moscow to bring the killers to justice.

Prominent Russian rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva called the shooting "a disgrace for Russia," the Interfax news agency reported.

"We are shocked by the murder,” the Memorial rights group in a statement. “We call for an immediate and efficient investigation."

Markelov’s defence of Chechen civilians
Markelov, who was the director of the Rule of Law Institute, a civil liberties group, gained prominence recently for representing the family of Elza Kungayeva, an 18-year-old Chechen woman whom Colonel Budanov, admitted strangling in his quarters in March 2000, just as the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya was beginning to rage. Budanov said he believed Kungayeva was a rebel sniper in the Kremlin’s war against Chechen insurgents.

Mr. Budanov was sentenced to 10 years in prison during his 2003 trial, but was given early parole for good behavior.

At the Moscow news conference just before his death, Markelov told reporters that he might file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the early release of Budanov. In an interview last week with The New York Times, Markelov said he might also file a lawsuit against the administration of the prison that released Mr. Budanov last Thursday.

The decision to free Budanov set off street protests and outraged some human rights groups and Chechen officials. Yet while Budanov’s case closely watched as an example of how Russian authorities would punish rights abuses. But Budanov also became a hero to racist nationalist groups, many of which held rallies in his support.

Russian prosecutor general to take personal charge of the case
Markelov was shot near a building where he had held his news conference, about half a mile from the Kremlin, Viktoria Tsyplenkova, a spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee of the Moscow prosecutor’s office, told the Associated Press.

Russian prosecutor general, Yuri Chayka, said he was taking control of the investigation, Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide journalists’ rights organisation, said on their web site.

Markelov was shot in the back of the head at close range by an attacker who followed him after the news conference, wore a stocking-style mask, and had a silencer on his gun — clear signs of a planned killing, state-run RIA-Novosti news agency reported, citing an unidentified law enforcement official. Police also reportedly said there were several witnesses.

Baburova was shot when she tried to intervene after Markelov was attacked, said Andrei Lipsky, a deputy editor at Novaya Gazeta. Another Novaya Gazeta editor, Sergei Sokolov, later said she died on an operating table.

Kungayeva’s father Visa Kungayev, who has taken refuge in Norway with his family, said Markelov told told Moscow Echo radio that Markelov had recently received death threats unless be backed off the Budanov case.

Other controversial cases in Markelov’s briefcase
Markelov was instrumental in another case involving alleged atrocities by the Russian military in Chechnya — the 2005 conviction of a police officer, Sergei Lapin, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the torture and "disappearance" of a young Chechen man.

On April 16th 2004, Markelov was riding home on the Moscow subway when five young men accosted him and beat him unconscious, he told a journalist later that year.

Markelov also represented the victims of a 2004 police sweep in the Ural Mountains city of Blagoveshchensk, where hundreds of residents were beaten by police.

He also represented families of the victims of the bungled rescue operations that ended the Dubrovka Theatre hostage siege carried out by a Chechen rebel group in Moscow October, 2002.

He was vocally critical of the government’s actions to free the hostages, which culminated in pumping an unknown chemical agent into the theatre’s ventilation, killing all 39 hostage takers and 129 hostages.

Markelov was also counsel for Khimskaya Pravda editor Mikhail Beketov, 50, who was assaulted in November of this year. Bektetov’s paper had a reputation for writing exposés on corruption and campaigning on environmental issues

Beketov was savagely beaten for what his supporters say was his newspaper’s vociferous opposition to the building of a  toll highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg that is slated to cut through protected forest lands.

Reporter Baburova was a social activist in environmental causes and participated in several protests, among them the European Social Forum in Malmö, Sweden in 2008. Her beat at Novaya Gazeta included Russian youth movements, protests, and legal issues.

Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices contributed to this report.

Charles Digges