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Media Matters: October 12, 2006

October 12, 2006, Volume 6, Number 15
Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist known for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya, was shot dead in her apartment building in Moscow on October 7.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the shooting, which they say could have been a "premeditated murder." Press watchdogs and rights activists have condemned the killing.

Moscow police said Politkovskaya's body was found by a neighbor in an elevator in the apartment building where she was living in the city center. Police officials said a pistol and four bullets were found in the elevator.

Politkovskaya was respected for her critical, in-depth coverage of the Russian government's campaign in Chechnya. She worked for "Novaya gazeta," a newspaper known for its opposition to the Kremlin.

Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal opposition Yabloko party told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the murder was "an outrage and a tragedy." "Anna Politkovskaya was the No.1 person in political journalism, in the sense that she wrote everything she thought and everything she saw," Yavlinsky said. "She was always in the most critical places -- Chechnya, Beslan. Her material uncovered the essence of everything taking place in Russian politics, and generally in Russian life. She was a person who could bring secrets out into the open. Her murder -- the destruction of such a person -- is a very symbolic event for Russia."

Deep Involvement

Politkovskaya's coverage of Chechnya often extended beyond standard reporting work. In 2002, she acted as a negotiator with Chechen rebels who laid siege to a Moscow theater.

In books like "The Dirty War" and "A Small Corner of Hell," Politkovskaya described the massive human rights abuses rampant in Chechnya. She was also openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in the Chechen campaign.

Her outspoken style came at a price. She had been arrested in the past, and complained of sometimes being threatened. In 2004, she fell seriously ill with symptoms of food poisoning after drinking tea on a flight from Moscow to southern Russia during the school hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia. At the time, her colleagues suspected it was an attempt on her life.

Accusations Of Contract Killing

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, said he believes her death is tied to her critical stance on the Kremlin and Chechnya. "There's no doubt that this murder was tied to her professional work as a journalist. It's clearly a contract killing -- that can be seen from the circumstances," Yakovenko said. "The fact that the person was killed in the entryway of their apartment building, that the pistol was left at the scene of the crime -- all that is the signature of a professional hired killer."

There was no immediate reaction for the Kremlin. The Moscow city prosecutor's office announced it has opened an investigation into the murder. First Deputy Prosecutor Vyacheslav Rosinsky said they were looking into the possibility of a "premeditated murder."

Demand For Government Action

International media and rights watchdogs were quick to condemn the killing.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called Politkovskaya "one of Russia's most outstanding investigative journalists and political commentators." He called upon Russian authorities to track down those responsible as soon as possible. Politkovskaya received the 2003 OSCE Prize for Journalism and Democracy.

Aidan White, the secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a media watchdog based in Brussels, told RFE/RL that Politkovskaya's slaying was clearly a "targeted assassination:"

"For the IFJ, it's very clear to us that when a journalist of such a reputation can be killed in this way, it reflects on the state of lawlessness that is threatening to overwhelm the whole of Russian journalism," White said. "It's very clear that this has been a targeted assassination. It's important that the government of Vladimir Putin act immediately to bring the killers to justice." White called Politkovskaya the "bravest of a new breed of brave Russian reporters."

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists described the killing as a "devastating development for journalism in Russia."

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said, "Russia is a violent country and violent to journalists."

The killing was also condemned by rights watchdog Amnesty International, and by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is also a shareholder in "Novaya gazeta."

Terry Davis, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, expressed sympathy for Politkovskaya's family and said she was a woman who "had a lot of enemies as a result of her honesty."

"This is terrible news. Obviously I'm very deeply shocked and concerned about what has happened," Davis said. "She was a woman of great personal courage, and she had an international reputation for honesty and independence in her work, in her reporting from places like Chechnya. And so she'll be very badly missed by all of us."

Condemnation And Grief

Lev Ponomaryov, chairman of the "For Human Rights" activist group, said the rights community was devastated by the loss of Politkovskaya, whom he described as "a brilliant journalist" and "a person who was always on the front line."

"There were a lot of other things that we did -- organizing protests, and the like," Ponomaryov said. "But she was in Chechnya. She was doing ten times more than we were. And Chechnya is the front line. She was always putting herself at risk. She had already been poisoned. Of course, it's not right that women go before a man. But that's what happened."

Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother of two, had been working on a story about torture in Chechnya in the days before her death, her newspaper said. (Originally published on October 7.)

By Claire Bigg

There is little doubt among politicians, human rights campaigners, and journalists that Anna Politkovskaya's assassination was linked to her professional activities -- namely her investigative reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"I have absolutely no doubt that the murder is in some way linked to the Chechen issue," says Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "Who commissioned the murder, who could benefit from Anna Politkovskaya's death? I think these questions will be answered by an independent investigation. I stress, an independent investigation, because over the past 10 or 12 years, not a single murder of a journalist linked to his or her professional activities has been solved."

Russia's Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika has taken the investigation under his personal control. But journalists and rights campaigners have little faith in that investigation.

"Novaya gazeta" has launched its own inquiry, offering a 25 million-ruble ($930,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of Politkovskaya's killer.

Chechnya Claims Another Victim

The daily has described Politkovskaya's slaying as "revenge," either by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed Chechen prime minister, or by those seeking to discredit him.

The 48-year-old Politkovskaya was a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's campaign in Chechnya -- and of Kadyrov, whose private security force, known as the "Kadyrovsty," is accused by human rights activists of kidnapping and torturing civilians.

In her books, "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya," and "A Small Corner of Hell," she describes the rampant human rights abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was about to submit an article containing her latest investigation about torture in Chechnya when she was killed.

In her last interview, with RFE/RL's Russian Service on October 5, Politkovskaya said her report implicated Kadyrov's militia: "Right now I have two photographs on my desk. I am conducting an investigation about torture today in Kadyrov's prisons. These are people who were abducted by Kadyrovsty for completely inexplicable reasons and who died. These are bodies absolutely disfigured by torture."

Politkovskaya was speaking on the occasion of Kadyrov's 30th birthday, which lifted the last legal barrier preventing him from running for president of the war-torn republic.

Kadyrov's Threats Made Good?

She once again lashed out at the Chechen strongman, calling him the "Stalin of our times" and a "coward armed to the teeth."

"Personally, I only have one dream on Kadyrov's birthday," she added. "I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that adheres to the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated."

Politkovskaya's outspoken rhetoric came at a price. In 2004, she fell seriously ill after drinking tea on a flight from Moscow to southern Russia during the school hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia.

Tomas Vrsovsky, the co-director of the Prague Watchdog online magazine, which covers Chechen affairs, says Politkovskaya told him she was being threatened by Kadyrov and his people.

"I talked with Anna informally three weeks ago [in Stockholm] and one of my questions during the informal talk was whether the threats she used to receive were still in force," he said. "She told me, of course, they haven't disappeared at all, she'd just stopped speaking publicly about them. And I asked, where did they come from. And she said, from Chechnya, namely from Mr. Kadyrov and his people."

Kadyrov has been quick to deflect suspicion following her assassination. On October 8, he said he was "saddened and shaken" by her death, and called for a thorough investigation. He went on to caution against "making assumptions with no basis or serious evidence."

International Calls For Justice

Politkovskaya's slaying reinforces Russia's image as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Politkovskaya is the 42nd journalist killed in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the 12th in a contract-style killing since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

Politkovskaya's killing has prompted expressions of grief and outrage outside Russia. The European Union Presidency has described her killing as a "heinous crime," and the White House on October 8 urged the Russian government to bring her killers to justice. The Foreign Office in London has also urged an inquiry.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin described Politkovskaya as a "remarkable woman" and called on the Russian authorities to waste no time in finding her killers.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, the chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called Politkovskaya "one of Russia's most outstanding investigative journalists and political commentators."

Putin, however, who celebrated his birthday on October 7, remains tight-lipped on the killing. (RFE/RL's Russian and Tajik services contributed to this report. Originally published on October 9.)

Anna Politkovskaya's last interview was with RFE/RL's Russian Service, just two days before she was gunned down in Moscow. The date of the interview, October 5, was also the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's prime minister, and it was a particularly significant birthday: now aged 30, he can legally stand for the post of president. Kadyrov was the target of much of Politkovskaya's most critical reporting, and in this interview Politkovskaya expresses her forthright view of a man she calls "a Stalin of our times," dreams of a day when Kadyrov will stand trial, and talks about the subjects of much of her work -- the victims of torture and abduction in Chechnya.

RFE/RL: A Moscow journalist recently wrote that Ramzan Kadyrov has switched from the role of "destroyer" to the role of "creator," and that, as far as human rights are concerned, "all that remains for us is to cry about them." What's your reaction to this statement?

Anna Politkovskaya: I am even not going to comment on this, because it's total nonsense. I think that the new Kadyrov is the one who gives a ride in his car to Moscow ladies who long for more brutality. That is the only difference.

What does that mean, to "cry about human rights?" There is no need to sit and cry about human rights. One simply needs to meet not only with Kadyrov, but also with those people who have suffered as a result of Kadyrov's actions, and not just in a hypothetical way but directly -- people whose relatives died, who were tortured, and who were forced to flee. The majority of these people are truly admirable; I know many of them personally.

Right now I have two photographs on my desk. I am conducting an investigation about torture today in Kadyrov's prisons, today and yesterday. These are people who were abducted by the Kadyrovtsi [members of Kadyrov's personal militia] for completely inexplicable reasons and who died. They died as part of a PR campaign.

I plan to say that these people who were abducted, whose photographs are on my desk, these people -- one of them is Russian, the other is Chechen -- were made to look as though they were fighters who battled against the Kadyrovtsi in the village of Aleroi. It's a well-known story, one that was all over our TV screens, on the radio, in the newspapers, when Kadyrov gave an interview before TV cameras from state and other channels with bodies in the background. But in fact these were people whom they had seized, had 'disappeared' for some time, and were then killed.

RFE/RL: Some say such incidents are just a small percentage, that these are individual cases that are the price paid for improvements in the region. What is your view?

Politkovskaya: I want to say here that there were more abductions in the first half of this year than in the first half of last year... And those are figures just of those people whose relatives reported abductions and whose bodies were never found. I'd like to call attention to the fact that we talk about "individual cases" only because these people aren't our loved ones -- it's not my son, my brother, my husband. The photographs that I'm telling you about, these were bodies that had been horribly tortured. You can't reduce this to a small percentage -- it's an enormous percentage.

Kadyrov is a Stalin of our times. This is true for the Chechen people. Many of our colleagues have gone out of their way to make us believe that this is a small percentage, that absolute evil can triumph today so that in some hypothetical future this evil can become good. This is absolutely not true.

As for the admiration felt for Kadyrov, you know, the situation is as it was under Stalin. If you [hear someone] speaking officially, publicly, openly, there is admiration. As soon as you [hear someone] speak secretly, softly, confidentially, you're told: 'We hate him intensely.' This split is absolute in people's souls. This is a very dangerous thing.

The Future Of Ramzan Kadyrov

RFE/RL: Do you agree with journalists who say that the presidency of Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to the presidency of Vladimir Putin?

Politkovskaya: I link Kadyrov's fate to the number of [people who want to take revenge on him], that's all. Of course, I don't wish death on anyone, but as far as this particular person is concerned, I think he should take serious care of his security.

Journalists who don't know this region say that he is reviving Chechen traditions. That is complete nonsense. He's destroying them. You know, I'm no supporter of the custom of the vendetta, but it did ensure some kind of stability in this region for many years. He has destroyed that too.

RFE/RL: Assuming Kadyrov is not killed, do you think he is likely to bring about early elections?

Politkovskaya: He is a puppet, nothing depends on him now. I don't think he's more powerful than anyone else. He's a coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards. I don't think he will become president [of Chechnya]. That is my strong inner belief, perhaps an intuition. It's not something rational, and nor has it been confirmed by Alu Alkhanov... Alu Alkhanov himself is a very weak person. That is his particular problem and the main reason for Kadyrov’s increasingly draconian methods.

Personally I only have one dream for Kadyrov's birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.

By the way, no other newspaper writes anything about this, but criminal cases have been launched against the Kadyrovtsi and Kadyrov personally on the basis of three articles published by our newspaper. I myself am a witness in one of these cases. These cases are about abductions, including one criminal case about the abduction of two people carried out with the participation of Ramzan Akhmedovich Kadyrov. (Originally published on October 9.)

By Claire Bigg

Anna Politkovskaya's death bears many trademarks of a contract killing. If it is determined that is the case, she will join a staggering list of 12 fellow journalists who are believed to have been slain by hired killers since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which recently named Politkovskaya one of the world's top press-freedom figures of the past 25 years, has kept track of the grim statistics -- and the fact that not a single case has been solved. The CPJ recently released a report called "Deadly News" listing the world's most murderous countries for journalists. Russia came in third -- a poor showing for what Abi Wright, CPJ's communications director, says is "nominally" a peacetime nation.

"The deadliest country for journalists that we've documented in the last 15 years is Iraq," Wright said. "Algeria is the second. But again, these are countries that were experiencing war, major conflicts. What's different about Russia is that there is no declaration of war in Russia itself, it is nominally at peace, and yet we've documented these 13 contract-style killings since Vladimir Putin took office. So that is a major indicator of the kind of press freedom climate that you find today in Russia."

Some of the journalists on the CPJ list of contract-killing victims were, like Politkovskaya, critical of government policy -- whether at a national or local level. Many others were covering corruption at the time of their deaths. And the further you get from the federal center, Wright notes, the more brazen the attacks on journalists become.

"It can be harder to hold people accountable in the provinces of many countries around the world, including Russia. My understanding of these cases in Tolyatti is that they have become almost emblematic of the climate of lawlessness and impunity that you find in Russia today," Wright said. "Investigations were not taken seriously, people were arrested and acquitted."

Igor Domnikov, 42, died in a Moscow hospital on July 16, 2000, two months after being bludgeoned with a hammer in the entryway of his apartment building in Moscow. Domnikov covered culture and education issues for the biweekly newspaper "Novaya gazeta." Domnikov's colleagues say his killer may have mistaken him for another "Novaya gazeta" reporter who had been threatened after investigating corruption in the oil industry. The two reporters lived in the same building.

Sergei Novikov, the owner of the independent Vesna radio station in Smolensk, was shot dead as he entered his apartment building on July 26, 2000. Investigators describe his murder as a contract-style killing. Vesna had broadcast claims of corruption in the regional administration on several occasions. Novikov was 36 years old.

Iskandar Khatloni, the Moscow correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service, was attacked in his apartment on September 21, 2000, by unidentified assailants who hit him in the head with an axe. Khatloni, 46, died later that night a Moscow hospital. He was writing a report on human rights abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya when he was killed.

On October 3, 2000, unknown gunmen killed Sergei Ivanov, the 30-year-old director of the television company Lada-TV, in a courtyard outside his apartment building in the Volga River city Tolyatti, an industrial center that is home to one of Russia's largest automaker, AvtoVAZ. Lada-TV was the largest independent television company in Tolyatti and was influential on the local political scene.

Adam Tepsurgayev, 24, bled to death after Chechen-speaking gunmen shot him in the thigh and groin on November 21, 2000. He had been watching television at a neighbor's house in Alkhan-Kala, a village close to Grozny. Tepsurgayev had worked as a fixer and driver for foreign journalists during the first Chechen war. Later, he had worked as a freelancer for the Reuters news agency.

Eduard Markevich, the editor and publisher of "Novyy reft," a local newspaper in the town of Reftinskiy, in Sverdlovsk Oblast, was found dead on September 18, 2001. He had been shot in the back. "Novyy reft" was often critical of local officials and Markevich, 29, had reported receiving threatening telephone calls. In 1998, two unknown assailants had broken into his apartment and beaten him up in front of his pregnant wife.

Natalya Skryl is currently the only woman on the list. A business reporter with "Nashe vremya" in the southwestern city of Rostov-na-Donu, the 29-year-old Skryl was investigating a power struggle over a metallurgical plant when she was attacked and struck multiple times with a heavy object. She died the following day, on March 9, 2002.

Two journalists from a single newspaper in the industrial city of Tolyatti were killed over the course of 18 months. On April 29, 2002, 32-year-old Valery Ivanov, the editor in chief of "Tolyattinskoye obozreniye" and a deputy in the local legislative assembly, was shot eight times in the head at point-blank range. According to a witness, his killer used a pistol with a silencer and fled the scene on foot. His close friend and successor, 31-year-old Aleksei Sidorov, was killed on October 9, 2003, after being stabbed in the chest with an ice pick. Both men were killed just outside their homes.

"Tolyattinskoye obozreniye" was known for its investigative reports on crime and government corruption. Sidorov was also known to be investigating Ivanov's murder at the time of his death. Journalists believe the deaths of both editors were meant as retaliation for the newspaper's work. A local factory welder was charged with Sidorov's murder, but was acquitted after the defendant withdrew what he said was a forced confession, and a district court ruled the prosecution's case was untenable. No one has ever been implicated in Ivanov's murder.

Dmitry Shvets, the 37-year-old deputy director-general of the TV-21 Northwestern Broadcasting independent television in the city of Murmansk, was killed on April 18, 2003, when he was shot several times outside the TV-21 office building. TV-21 journalists had reported receiving threats in connection with critical reporting on several influential politicians, including those involved in local mayoral elections.

Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine, was killed on July 9, 2004 outside his Moscow office, after being struck by shots fired from a passing car. Klebnikov, a 41-year-old American of Russian descent, had reported extensively on Russia's billionaire oligarchs, including Boris Berezovsky. His family has dismissed attempts to attribute the killing to Chechens acting on the orders of a separatist fighter whom Klebnikov had profiled.

Magomedzagid Varisov, a prominent journalist and political analyst with the "Novoye delo" weekly, was killed June 28, 2005, in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan. Assailants carrying automatic rifles opened fire on his car as he was returning home with his wife and driver; Varisov was killed immediately. Varisov had often used his publication to criticize the Daghestani opposition. "Novoye delo" had reportedly received repeated phone-call threats against him. (Originally published on October 10.)