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Russia: Watchdogs Condemn Politkovskaya Killing

PRAGUE, October 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist known for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya, was shot dead on October 6 in her apartment building in Moscow.
Anna Politkovskaya in April at RFE/RL

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. The Interfax news agency quoted police officials as saying a pistol and four bullets were found in the elevator.

Reports say supporters have gathered outside the building, many laying flowers at the site.

'An Outrage And A Tragedy'

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 killing was "an outrage and a tragedy."

"Anna Politkovskaya was a person who was No. 1 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," he said. "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."

Yavlinsky added: "The general atmosphere of psychosis, hysteria, chauvinism, nationalism in the country can easily provoke precisely these kinds of developments. The pogroms that are taking place under conditions of a nationalistic fever sanctioned by the authorities, they easily lead to a situation where the criminal world feels that it is absolutely beyond punishment. The past month has seen two of the biggest political murders -- the murder of [Russian Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Andrei] Kozlov and the murder of Politkovskaya."

Exposing Abuses In Chechnya

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.

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," he said. "It's clearly a contract killing -- that can be seen from the circumstances. 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.
"If our journalists aren't able unite around an independent journalistic investigation of this murder, then I have the feeling that after a certain period Russian journalism will simply vanish as a profession from our country," Yakovenko added. "In the past 15 years, 246 journalists have been killed here, and not once has the state been able to investigate and solve these murders in a normal way."

There has been 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." Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika today took personal charge of the investigation.

International Condemnation, Calls For Justice

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 general secretary 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," and he called on the government to "act immediately to bring the killers to justice." 
"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.

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." 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." The U.S. State Department said the United States was "shocked and profoundly saddened" by the murder, and called on the Russian government to conduct a thorough investigation.

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."

Lev Ponomaryov, chairman of the For Human Rights activist group, said the rights community was devastated by the loss of Politkovskaya.

"A brilliant journalist. A person who was always on the front line. There were a lot of other things that we did -- organizing protests, and the like," he said. "But she was in Chechnya. She was doing 10 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.
"Of course, if you consider who did this, considering that today is Putin's birthday, it's a complex political provocation," Ponomaryov added. "Someone sat -- someone who was absolutely indifferent to the fact that this was a human life -- and simply dealt himself a game of political solitaire. He planned this murder. Who did this? An enemy of Putin? An ally of Putin? We don't know. A person for whom human life means nothing."

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. Deputy editor Vitaly Yaroshevsky said today that the article was due to be published on October 9, but the text had not yet been submitted.

"She was a person of principles, an honest journalist," her husband Aleksandr said. "She probably belonged to another time."

... Payvand News - 10/8/06 ... --

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