Russia's Supreme Court overturned the acquittals of three men accused of involvement in the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya on June 25, 2009, ordering a retrial. Meanwhile, the kidnapping and murder of another prominent human rights activist and journalist in Chechnya on July 15 showed that the country remains treacherous for reporters challenging authority.
The Russian Supreme Court cited procedural violations by the judge and the defense in ordering that the case against four men – Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and Pavel Ryaguzov – be retried on the same charges in the same Moscow military court, The New York Times reported June 26. The Supreme Court sided with government prosecutors, who had appealed the acquittals alleging numerous procedural problems. In contrast, Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev blamed the acquittals on the prosecution’s errors and unfamiliarity with the jury system, which is relatively new in Russia, The Times reported.
On Feb. 19, 2009, a jury unanimously acquitted Khadzhikurbanov and the two Makhmudov brothers, who were accused of helping to organize the 2006 killing. Ryaguzov was acquitted of having criminal ties to the other three, but was not accused of playing a role in the murder itself. A June 25 Associated Press (AP) story said the acquittals were “an embarrassment” for a Russian government that “has appeared eager to fend off charges that journalists and Kremlin critics can be murdered with impunity.”
For more on the first Politkovskaya trial, see “Accused Politkovskaya Conspirators Acquitted” in the Winter 2009 issue of the Silha Bulletin. For more on Politkovskaya’s murder, and the subsequent investigation, see “Famed Russian Reporter Murdered in Contract Killing” in the Fall 2006 issue, “Russia: Politkovskaya Investigation Continues; Reporter Detained for Alleged Extortion” in the Fall 2007 issue, and“Charges Filed in Politkovskaya Murder, Killer Still at Large” in the Summer 2008 issue.
The circumstances of Politkovskaya’s death led many to speculate that she was killed in retaliation for her outspoken criticism of Russian government officials and policies targeting Chechnya, which was the topic of much of the reporting for which she was renowned.
Politkovskaya’s family and former colleagues expressed satisfaction at the Supreme Court’s decision to retry the men accused of helping carry out the murder, but they remain focused on the fact that the suspected killer remains at large, and that the people suspected of ordering the killing have also not been found.
The Times reported that investigators believe a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, carried out the murder, shooting Politkovskaya with a pistol in the hallway of her apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. Rustam Makhmudov is reportedly thought to be hiding abroad.
Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya’s former employer, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a June 25 story on its Web site, “The most important thing for us is that we not only have some secondary characters answer for their actions, but have the real culprits – the killer and the mastermind of the crime – called to the stand.”
Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer for Politkovskaya’s family, told The Times, “That is the mechanism of impunity – to punish those who might be concerned with the case or maybe not – but not the real figures. This impunity will allow for the same type of crime to be committed in the future.”
Human Rights Activist Killed in Chechnya
On July 15, prominent human rights worker and journalist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered.
The Times reported July 15 that a co-worker said several men pushed Estemirova into a white vehicle as she left her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, at about 8:30 that morning. Witnesses said she yelled that she was being kidnapped. The prosecutor general’s investigative wing told The Times her body was found later that day in a wooded area alongside a highway about 50 miles away, near the city of Nazran, with gunshot wounds in the head and chest.
According to CPJ, Estemirova had been an activist with the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial since 1999 and a consultant for the New York-based international rights group Human Rights Watch. She was also a regular contributor to Novaya Gazeta and the Caucasus news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel. According to CPJ, Estemirova reported on extrajudicial killings, abductions, and punitive arsons for Novaya Gazeta, writing under a pseudonym after she began to receive threats from Chechen authorities. Reuters reported July 15 that Estemirova and Politkovskaya had been close friends. In 2007 Estemirova was the first recipient of an award given in Politkovskaya’s honor by the rights organization Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR).
The Times reported Estemirova “had become a central source of information on abuses in Chechnya,” focusing her work on kidnappings that she believed had been carried out under the authority of Chechen president Ramzan A. Kadyrov, who has been publicly supported by the Russian government. Her work was denounced by Chechen authorities and brought threats, The Times reported. Tatyana Kasatkina, a co-worker at Memorial, told The Times that in March 2008, after Estemirova criticized a new Chechen law requiring women to wear head scarves, Kadyrov summoned her and threatened her, leaving her so frightened that she went abroad for months. Estemirova eventually returned, despite friends’ attempts to persuade her to stay away.
According to The Times, colleagues at Memorial said that as threats to her life became more frequent and more serious, Estemirova had become increasingly torn between staying in Grozny to work and the safety of her 15-year-old daughter, Lana, whom she was raising alone.
The Times reported July 17 that a “chorus of accusation” has followed the Estemirova killing, most of which has been directed at Kadyrov. Kasatkina said in the July 15 Times story, “There have been threats for a while, and now Kadyrov hopes to lower the curtain. With [Natalya’s] murder, Kadyrov drew the line and sent a message to human rights groups: ‘I won’t tolerate you.’”
Kadyrov released a statement the day of Estemirova’s killing, The Times reported July 15. He said he would “spare no expense” to find the killers, and that he believed the murder was meant to divert law enforcement attention from counterterrorism operations.
A statement from Medvedev also condemned the murder, adding, “Unfortunately, it is apparent that this premeditated murder may be related to Natalya Estemirova’s human rights activities.” The Times reported July 17 that Medvedev has dismissed theories that implicated Kadyrov, calling them “primitive.” Kadyrov also placed a personal call to Memorial director Oleg P. Orlov, telling him the accusations must stop. Orlov told The Times “We had a conversation, man to man. There was a reproach. He said that the accusations I have been making against him were baseless. He said he had no need to kill ... Estemirova, that she did not represent a threat to anyone.”
The Times reported that on July 16, police halted Estemirova’s funeral procession in Grozny after it had traveled about 200 yards. The mourners were told they had to have a permit.
Four other Novaya Gazeta journalists have been killed in work-related murders since 2000. In addition to the 2006 murder of Politkovskaya, part-time Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasia Baburova was killed on Jan. 19, 2009, as she walked on a Moscow sidewalk with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was also killed. Deputy Editor Yuri Shchekochikhin died from a suspicious poisoning in 2003, and reporter Igor Domnikov was beaten to death with a hammer in 2000. No one has been charged or convicted for any of the murders.
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor