Journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya murdered in Moscow

frontpageingressimage_polit.jpg Photo: Novaya Gazeta

The 48-year-old Politkovskaya, by the assessment of colleagues and human rights activists, had few equals in her field and was broadly admired for her fearless pursuit of truth in the most dangerous of circumstances.

She worked as a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, a liberal bi-weekly that is popular among Russia’s intellectual community, and had also become one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates, winning several international awards for her reporting and advocacy.

The day she was murdered – which was also President Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday – she had been working on a story about Kremlin-backed leaders in Chechnya using torture and kidnapping to intimidate the citizenry, Novaya Gazeta’s Deputy Editor Vitaly Yaroshevsky said.

“This is a professional murder,” Yaroshevsky said. “Her reporting made her many enemies.

Specifically, Politkovskaya’s story focused on alleged abuses by Kremlin-backed Chechen Premier Razman Kadyrov. Yaroshevsky had been expecting her to file the story Saturday evening, and the story was to run today.

Yaroshevsky said that there were no concrete theories behind the killing of Politkovskaya, though he noted in interviews that enemies of Kadyrov could have been behind it in order to besmirch the Chechen premier’s name. Other theories afoot are that Kadyrov ordered the killing to prevent the story from running.

Novaya Gazeta posted a 25 million rouble (nearly $1m) reward for information leading to the capture of Politkovskaya’s assailant, and has said it wlll conduct its own investigation into her murder, leaving little doubt as to her colleagues’ trust in the authorities ability or zeal to solve the crime.

Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, a shareholder in Novaya Gazeta, called Politkovskaya’s killing “a savage crime.”

“It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press,” he told the Interfax news agency. “It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us.”

Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said:
"Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder signals a major crisis of free expression and journalistic safety in Russia."

The 46-nation Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog whose executive body is currently led by Russia, called for her death to be investigated quickly and convincingly.

Born the child of Ukrainian parents who served in the Soviet diplomatic corps, Politkovskaya is survived by her two adult children, a son and a daughter.

The Kremlin administration had no comment on the prominent journalist’s death. Her funeral will be held in Moscow on Tuesday. The point will most likely be pushed Tuesday, however, when Putin meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has voiced concern on human rights issues in Russia.

Conflicting reports on the crime scene
Politkovskaya’s body was found by a neighbor shortly after 5 p.m. She had been shot in the head, and a pistol was found next to her body – the signature markings of a contract killing, authorities and Yaroshevsky said.

There were conflicting reports about whether her body had been found in the elevator or in the entrance hall, as well as over what kind of pistol had been used in the shooting and how many shots had been fired. Initial reports indicated her assailant used a 9-millimeter Makarov pistol and shot her twice, once in the torso and once in the head.

But the daily Kommersant disputed that, writing that the gun was an Izh pistol with a silencer, and that four shots had been fired – two into Politkovskaya’s heart, one into her shoulder, and the last into her head.

Russian media also reported that a closed circuit security camera caught the image of a tall young man – her suspected assailant – in dark clothes and a black baseball cap fleeing the scene, encouraging the hope that police may be able to enhance an image of the man’s face.

RTR Russian television reported she had apparently been killed after she left her apartment for a trip to a nearby store, and that investigators believed that she had been followed throughout the day.

Putin tightens the screws on the free press
Under the Putin administration, the independent press has taken a severe bashing. Almost all television stations are under government control, and newspapers – once a flourishing fixture of daily life as recently as 10 years ago – have either been co-opted by Kremlin-friendly forces or simply closed down altogether.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has become one of the most dangerous places for reporters to work. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 12 journalists in Russia have been killed in contract-style murders since 2000. Politkovskaya’s murder brought that number to 13.

None of these cases has been solved, including the 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine.

Politkovskaya was never intimidated by the statistics
Politkovskaya’s was a fearless voice that was heard above the grumbling crowd of most Russian reporters who had allowed Putin to cow them into self-censorship. It was also a voice that drew her almost constant harassment by the authorities and death threats.

"Every time I return from Chechnya, I love my life, because I know that at any time I could lose it," she said in an interview recorded early this year.

She often transcended her role of journalist and once negotiated the safe passage of dozens of elderly civilians trapped in Grozny, the Chechen capital. And in 2002, when a group of Chechen rebels seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in the middle of a performance, she was one of a handful of Russian citizens invited to negotiate by the hostage takers. Another was Leonid Roshal, a pediatric physician.

“She was profoundly affected by the victims of war and seemed haunted by their suffering. To her, reporting was far more than a job — she saw it as a moral obligation,” wrote Mark Franchetti, Moscow bureau chief of the Times of London, who had worked closely with Politkovskaya.

According to her journalistic and human rights colleagues, Politkovskaya’s ability to work under the strain of such dangers made her monumental. One threat, in particular, awoke her supporters to the dangers she truly faced.

In 2004 she said she had been poisoned by a cup of spiked tear while on a flight to cover the public school siege by supposed Chechen rebels in Beslan. She passed out on the plane but survived. Novaya Gazeta then briefly assigned her a security detail.

“She was doing such risky things for such a long time that it seemed she had transcended the danger,” said Tatyana Lokshina, chairwoman of Centre Demos, a Moscow-based human rights organization. “I am ashamed to say it, but we all felt she was next to a monument, and that she was an icon.”

Lokshina told the New York Times she had been with Politkovskaya two weeks ago in Stockholm, and that nothing seemed awry.

“She never spoke about any current threats,” she said. “Everything seemed quite normal. She seemed happy and never referred to anything suspicious.”

Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, said there was really “no special comment” to offer on the shooting.

“The current administration in Russia has created a state of corruption and crime. The person on the street is not protected in any way because the police and special security services are occupied with carrying out political orders, serving the authorities and racketeering,” he said in an interview with Bellona Web.

“Anyone could get killed. Those who are at the biggest risk are the people who twist the tails of power and crime structures. Anna always stepped on the sore spots of the authorities and the gangs that wreak havoc in Chechnya – for which she was killed.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was shocked and profoundly saddened by the murder of a journalist who devoted much of her career to "shining a light on human rights abuses and other atrocities of the war in Chechnya" and the plight of Chechen refugees.

A mercurial career
Politkovskaya began reporting on Chechnya in 2000 – a time when journalists were blocked by the government from covering the conflict – and chose to focus on the human side of the civil war rather than the more conventional reports on troop movement and battles.

The plight of the ordinary Chechen became her subject matter, and the human eye she trained on the war stirred readers to question Moscow’s engagement in the bloody 12-year-old conflict.

She collected hundreds of first hand reports from civilians who had been brutalized by the war that went into hundreds of articles and several books. She broke stories on torture, kidnappings for ransom or to eliminate suspected rebels and the practice by the Russian army of selling Chechen corpses to their families for proper Islamic burial.

Speaking on Radio Liberty radio station regarding Politkovskaya’s Kadyrov story, Yaroshevsky said: "We never got the article, but she had evidence about these (abducted) people and there were photographs.”

In a recent radio interview, Politkovskaya said that she was a witness in a criminal case against Kadyrov.

"These are cases of kidnappings, including one criminal case concerning an abduction personally involving Ramzan Kadyrov, a kidnapping of two people, whose photographs are now on my desk," Politkovskaya said in comments rebroadcast Sunday by Radio Liberty.

These photos and notes, however, are now in the hands of the police, and will, according to most observers, soon be "lost" by authorities.

Politkovskaya was also never afraid to spare Putin her pen.

She accused him of stifling freedom and failing to shake off his past as a KGB agent. In her book “Putin’s Russia” – which was published overseas, but not in Russia, she explained her impressions of the president.

"I dislike him for … his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies,” she wrote. “…for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as president."

Charles Digges