Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia's 'Open Season' Of Murder Continues

Mourners lay flowers and light candles on January 20 at the site of Markelov's slaying.
Mourners lay flowers and light candles on January 20 at the site of Markelov's slaying.
A well-known lawyer is shot down in the center of Moscow. A journalist who was interviewing him just moments before is also fatally wounded. Is it the plot of some action film? Is it a summary of a detective novel?

No. Lawyer Stas Markelov has been murdered. Young, intelligent, an outstanding personality who took up the defense of everyone who appealed to him. If you look at his work, you can see his preference for the so-called human rights cases. Stas often called me and suggested I write something about one or another of his clients. As a rule, I was given the stories that, for one reason or another, "Novaya gazeta" had rejected. "You know, they don't have space to write about all my cases," he'd complain. I understood. And I wrote.

Stanislav Markelov
I spoke with Stas last on January 15. Usually when he picked up the phone, Stas sounded boisterous and welcoming. "Hello!" he'd say and willingly answer any questions. But that day he seemed somehow nervous. His phone had been ringing nonstop since earlier in the day when Yury Budanov -- the Russian colonel who was convicted of the 2000 killing of 18-year-old Chechen woman Elza Kungayeva and sentenced to 10 years in prison -- had been released unexpectedly on parole.

"Call back in 20 minutes," he said. "I'm standing in front of a REN-TV camera doing a commentary right now."

I called him back and started asking: "What is this all about? Why did they release Budanov? After all, you -- representing the victim's family -- appealed the parole decision and already submitted a preliminary complaint." Stas was at a loss. He said the court was awaiting his full complaint and that he did not understand what had happened. "They are wiping their feet on the court," he said. "But I have already sent a request to the Federal Corrections Service asking that they punish those who illegally released Budanov. I will appeal to [Investigatve Committee Chairman Aleksandr] Bastrykhin. I am waiting for a response from the court."

Shortly after I spoke with him, the news agencies reported that the court had returned Markelov's complaint, saying he had no right to appeal a parole decision. I asked other lawyers whether that was true, and none of them could answer me. It turns out that such a basic practice simply does not exist in Russia. As a rule, victims do not appeal parole decisions concerning those who harmed them.

Principled Stand

But Stas Markelov was not like other lawyers. He was not afraid of unusual measures. He was bold, decisive, and had no problem rowing against the current. His only goal was to expose lies and injustice. He did not compromise with prosecutors or judges. He laughed at lawyers who brought bribes to judges like storks bringing newborn babies.

It is symbolic that Stas was murdered just as the trial into the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya is winding down. The murderers and organizers of that crime are walking free, taking advantage of Russia's lawlessness. And, of course, because of this, there will be more murders.

Stas was Anna's lawyer. He defended her when Major Sergei Lapin of a special police detachment from Khanty-Mansiisk threatened to kill her. This was the same Lapshin who, together with some comrades, tortured Zelimkhan Murdalov to death. Stas traveled to Chechnya and represented the interests of Murdalov's family, managing to get Lapshin convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

One of Markelov's last cases was defending Mikhail Beketov, the editor in chief of the newspaper "Khimkinskaya pravda," from defamation charges filed by the mayor of Khimki. In November Beketov was savagely beaten, and he remains in a coma to this day. Stas Markelov managed to have the investigation into that incident reclassified from a charge of "serious assault" to "attempted murder."

It is possible that Markelov got too close to figuring out who assaulted Beketov and was near to guessing who ordered the attack. And that would have been unforgivable. There is a mayoral election coming up in Khimki, and there is a referendum planned on the proposed construction of the Moscow-St. Petersburg superhighway through the territory of the Khimki protected forest. We are talking about serious money.

Obviously, this was a contract killing, one that was planned in advance. Can it really be that a lawyer is an important enough person in Russia that someone would want to kill him? Yes, as it turns out.

The first reaction from many commentators -- especially in Chechnya -- was that Markelov was murdered by "supporters and defenders of Yury Budanov." It seems to me that this explanation is the most facile, superficial, and ultimately improbable one. It would be convenient for everyone for whom Markelov was an obstacle to present the murder as "the revenge of the Budanovists." And most commentators have done just that.

'Open Season'?

Now we'll have to watch who the investigators come up with and who gets assigned the role of Markelov's murderer. They say that he defended anti-fascists and so maybe the murder was the revenge of fascists. Revenge for what? Because he got them jailed? But can a lawyer in our country really do that? Can a lawyer make the law enforcement agencies enforce the law? Hardly.

Recently, Stas often said, "If prosecutors are not going to act and to defend the law, then I will force them to do so." Is this a reason to kill him?

Stas was a victim of a frightening hunt, an open season that was declared several years ago. So the main question that needs to be answered now is: "Who declared this open season?"

Who is inscribing the names on this unending list? Paul Klebnikov. Anna Politkovskaya. Movladi Baisarov. Ruslan Yamadayev -- all different people, but all brutally murdered in the center of Moscow. Umar Izrailov -- a Chechen who filed a torture complaint at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that named Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov personally -- was murdered in Vienna.

Stanislav Markelov -- who, among other things, was involved in the case of Magomedsalikh Masayev, who disappeared last summer after accusing the Chechen authorities of running secret prisons -- shot down in the center of Moscow.

Alongside him, journalist Anastasia Baburova was killed. They say she tried to protect Markelov from his killer.

Forgive us, Stas. You defended others, but turned out to be defenseless against the madman who dared to shoot you down.

Zoya Svetova is a columnist for "Novyye izvestia." This piece originally appeared on the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

SUBSCRIBE For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."