Russia’s top prosecutor today took charge of investigating the murder of a journalist who was a prominent critic of the war in Chechnya and planned to publish a story about torture and abductions in the region.
Anna Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother-of-two who had chronicled abuses against civilians in Chechnya in the outspoken newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was found dead on Saturday in the lift in her building in Moscow. She had two gunshot wounds – one to the head.
The killing provoked international condemnation and underlined the increasingly dangerous environment for journalists working in Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, launching a crackdown on media freedoms.
The award-winning reporter had collected witness accounts and photos of tortured bodies and the article had been due for publication tomorrow, her newspaper’s editors said.
“We never got the article, but she had evidence about these (abducted) people and there were photographs,” Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Vitaly Yerushensky told Ekho Moskvy radio.
The execution-style killing, which police described as the work of a professional contract killer, was the most high-profile killing of a journalist in Russia since the July 2004 assassination of Paul Klebnikov, the US-born editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.
Politkovskaya was at least the thirteenth journalist to have been the victim of a contract-style killing since Putin came to power in 2000, according to the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In a recent radio interview Politkovskaya said she was a witness in a criminal case against Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, a feared strongman whose security forces have been accused of kidnapping civilians and other abuses.
“These are cases of kidnappings, including one criminal case concerning an abduction personally involving Ramzan Kadyrov, a kidnapping of two people, whose photographs are now on my desk,” she said in comments rebroadcast today by Ekho Moskvy.
In the interview she said the victims, an ethnic Russian and a Chechen, were “rounded up, kidnapped for a time and killed. Their bodies showed signs of serious torture.”
Politkovskaya was one of the most persistent critics of Kadyrov’s security forces, but she had crossed many powerful people, including in the Russian military, with her investigative reporting and human rights advocacy.
Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ, said: “One thing that immediately comes to mind ... is that Anna had many enemies.”
The biweekly Novaya Gazeta wrote on its website that the killing was either revenge by Kadyrov or an attempt to discredit him.
Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika today took personal charge of the investigation, his office said.
The Interfax news agency quoted law enforcement sources as saying that investigators were examining several possible reasons for the killing linked to Politkovskaya’s professional activities, including the “Chechen trail.”
But her colleagues at the hard-hitting newspaper said that they would launch their own investigation, reflecting scepticism that the official inquiry would ever find the perpetrators.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev condemned the journalist’s killing as “a blow to the entire, democratic, independent press.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US was shocked and profoundly saddened by the murder of a journalist who devoted much of her career to “shining a light on human rights abuses and other atrocities of the war in Chechnya” and the plight of Chechen refugees.
The 46-nation Council of Europe, a leading human rights watchdog whose executive body is currently led by Russia, called for the circumstances surrounding her death to be investigated quickly and convincingly.
Chechen President Alu Alkhanov said he was “shocked” at Politkovskaya’s killing, Interfax reported.
Politkovskaya had come under threat repeatedly. 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. Her colleagues suspected the incident was an attempt on her life.
Politkovskaya began reporting on Chechnya in 1999 during Russia’s second military campaign there, concentrating less on military engagements than on the human side of the war.
Despite the end of large-scale fighting, Russia remains locked in guerrilla conflict with a hardcore of separatist rebels and allegations of kidnappings, torture and murder of civilians blamed on Russian forces and their Chechen allies persist.