The failure to solve Anna Politkovskaya (Анна Политковская)’s murder in the five years since her death casts a long shadow that threatens all those who fight for a fairer Russia and an end to violence in the Caucasus. There have been encouraging developments in the investigation of late but the hardest part, identifying the masterminds, still remains. It will require a great deal of courage on part of the police and judicial authorities.
A reporter for the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who was famous in Russia and abroad for her hard-hitting coverage of the Caucasus and her scathing criticism of the Kremlin, Politkovskaya was gunned down in the stairwell of her apartment building on Moscow’s Lesnaya Street on 7 October 2006.
The investigations into this highly sensitive case have been obstructed for years. The trial of four of her alleged killers that began two years after her death was marked many irregularities and ended on 19 February 2009 with three of them being acquitted. The supreme court ordered a new trial but the case was split into several components and for a long time an additional investigation was refused.
The alleged gunman, Rustam Makhmudov, had meanwhile been able to flee abroad thanks to accomplices within the administration, reinforcing the sense of impunity.
Makhmudov’s arrest at his parent’s home in Chechnya in May of this year was a watershed. Then, on 23 August, a retired Moscow police officer, Lt. Col. Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, was arrested on a charge of organizing the murder. He was accused of hiring the hit men who followed Politkovskaya and carried out the murder. He was also accused of providing murder weapon.
Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee, said the investigators even had “information about the presumed mastermind” but added that it would be premature to make that information public.
Should this progress be seen as evidence of a real political will to end impunity for those who attack and kill journalists in Russia? Unfortunately, the official investigators have so far only made progress when under pressure from Novaya Gazeta’s parallel investigation. Identifying the masterminds, some of whom almost certainly are members of the Russian or Chechen security services, will require a different level of resolve altogether.
The May 2011 conviction of the couple responsible for the double murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova dealt the first significant blow against the impunity generally prevailing in Russia, but everything still remains to be done.
At least 26 journalists have been killed in connection with their work since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 (see below). Journalists and human rights defenders are particularly exposed in the Russian Caucasus. Politkovskaya’s murder, like that of her fellow journalist, Natalia Estemirova, who headed the Grozny branch of the Russian human rights NGO Memorial, heightened the climate of fear and self-censorship in Chechnya.
As the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, recently said to the newspaper Dosh: “[Ordinary people] tell us, and it’s partly true: ‘They kill you too. You are unable to defend yourselves. So how are you going to be able to defend us?’.”
President Dmitri Medvedev’s promise to do something about impunity for those responsible for violence against journalists has come to nothing. But the candidate to succeed him, the “Predator of Press Freedom” Vladimir Putin, has never made any such commitment. He also referred to Politkovskaya’s impact on public opinion as “extremely insignificant.”
So, this is clearly not the moment to cry victory. On the contrary, the need is greater than ever to redouble efforts and vigilance, to ensure that the official investigation does not stop after making progress, to ensure that that it keeps going until all those who were ultimately responsible for this murder have been identified.
"Information kills" - A campaign against impunity in Russia: