The 2006 murder of Russian investigative journalist and International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Hero Anna Politkovskaya is emblematic of the state of impunity for such crimes in her country, yet she is only one of at least 62 journalists to have lost her life in Russia since 1997, according to IPI’s Death Watch.
That number makes Russia the sixth deadliest country in the world for journalists in the last 16 years. Moreover, as impunity for attacks on journalists in Russia remains the general rule and the vast majority of cases remain unsolved, the true tally could be even higher.
IPI recorded three journalists’ deaths in Russia this year. Mikhail Beketov died in April from complications related to a savage 2008 beating, widely believed to be related to his coverage of efforts to stop construction of a highway through a protected forest in Khimki, outside Moscow. In May, Nikolai Potapov – a former local official who was the founder and editor of the Selsovet (Village Council) newspaper, which exposed alleged corruption by local authorities – was gunned down in the Stavropol region.
In July, gunmen in Dagestan killed journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, editor and chief political correspondent at Novoye Delo, a weekly newspaper known for reports on alleged corruption in the local government. Akhmednabiyev reportedly died at the same spot where he survived an assassination attempt six months earlier.
Numerous other killings and attacks on journalists remain unsolved in Russia. Yet, more than seven years on, it is Politkovskaya’s killing, and the continued failure to bring her killers to justice, that most captivates observers inside and outside of Russia.
A seemingly fearless investigative journalist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who documented widespread abuses during the second Chechen war, Politkovskaya was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006. A Moscow court last year sentenced retired police officer Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, accused of providing her murderers with weapons and her address, to 11 years in prison after he cooperated with prosecutors. However, Politkovskaya’s family sharply criticised the trial, in which no witnesses testified, no evidence was examined and journalists were barred from most of the hearings.
Five other suspects whose prior acquittals in the case were overturned by the Supreme Court are currently on trial for the murder. However, prosecutors recently accused the defendants’ lawyer of bribery and witness tampering in another case. Just last week, the court disbanded the jury after two members asked to be released due to poor health and two others in order to complete business trips.
IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven M. Ellis spoke with Russian human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, who represents Politkovskaya’s family, and with Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Elena Milashina about the Politkovskaya case and about how impunity affects Russian journalists.
IPI: Ms. Moskalenko, you represent Anna Politkovskaya’s family. In 2007, six months after her murder, you brought proceedings related to the killing before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), despite proceedings in Russian courts which remain ongoing to this day. Why?
KM: For many years, I’ve been working on many cases about political killings and persecution. The Anna Politkovskaya case is probably the most important. … We filed [the case before the ECHR] in the beginning of 2007 because we knew, like in many cases … that we would not have a judgment.
IPI: So you don’t expect justice from the Russian courts?
KM: Already the second trial doesn’t bring any result. The investigator and a team of investigators, they don’t sincerely want to go into the truth. … The investigation needed to go further to find the real criminals: who financed the crime, ordered the crime, organised the crime. It’s not those people accused, although they’re probably involved.
When the investigation doesn’t want to discover the truth, there’s no chain [of culpability]. At some step, they have to stop because they don’t want to investigate. It’s not impressive to a jury. The defendants insisted on a jury. They took a big risk. People in Moscow wouldn’t normally sympathise with Chechens. … No one was convicted except the police officer, who was, over all protests of the victim’s side, tried in a closed trial. … This is the way how to avoid real justice and support impunity.
IPI: The jury in the Russian case was recently dismissed and a new jury is scheduled be chosen in January. Why do you think that happened?
KM: It all happened when they had secret information on the mood of the jury. It couldn’t be good for the prosecution. … We don’t need an unfair trial. Let [the defendants] free [during trial]. They’re not going to disappear. Why keep them in prison? Wait for a final judgment. Juries don’t like it when prosecutors manipulate them, when the judge is unfair to the accused.
IPI: Russia has seen more murders of journalists in recent years than anywhere else in Europe, and attacks on journalists remain common. In many cases, accountability has seemed to be superficial, if it comes at all. Why do so many attacks on journalists and others in Russia result in impunity?
KM: This is a general pattern … Dmitry Kholodov [who was murdered in 1994 and is believed to the be the first journalist in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union targeted for death due to his work] was killed and no one was brought to justice, although it was clear that high-ranking military was interested in closing his mouth. … People were acquitted because the investigation was very poor. … We aren’t complaining against the court. We’re happy if the court acquits, but [bring guilty, not innocent] people to court. Otherwise, it’s impunity. When you have a lot of evidence, still nobody is punished.
IPI: You have looked into the killing of human rights defender Natasha Estemirova [who in 2009 was abducted in Chechnya and found shot to death]. What is the status of that case?
KM: Again, we see the investigation go deliberately in the wrong direction. When we see journalists killed, we go in six months to the European Court of Human Rights. In the Anna Politkovskaya case, we went to the court with the point that we had accumulated six months worth of evidence … and they didn’t use it properly. Every time we want to give the Russian authorities a chance. But it is an “imitation” [of an investigation]. … If they bring a fair case with full evidence to the court, we would support the prosecution. But we see how unfair the trial is, and we can’t support it.
IPI: Ms. Milashina, you were attacked in 2012 in Moscow. Can you describe what happened?
EM: I was together with a friend. She works for Freedom House, Ella Asoyan. We were going to Grozny on 5 April, 2012, and the night before we were attacked on the street outside my apartment in my apartment district. I was beaten; she was hit, but not badly. I was beaten cruelly. They stole her bag with her computer and money. They grabbed the first thing they could from my backpack, a pocket containing approximately the equivalent of [US] $100. The main aim I think was to beat me.
IPI: Has anyone been apprehended in the case?
EM: Two guys, who have nothing to do with this. My friend saw the people who actually attacked us. They [looked] like people from the Caucasus. She’s from the Caucasus as well: she’s Armenian. … [The police] later caught some drug-abusing people, who were already on trial. These people had a clear Slavic look. They didn’t look like [the people who attacked us] and they had an alibi. The main proof against them was that they wrote a confession. But when they went to trial, we found out from the police that came to court that it was fake. The accused came to the police station on 13 April and wrote a confession, but at trial it was revealed that the police who arrested them did so on 12 April and forced a confession. The only proof was fake at trial, but they were sent to prison for two-and-a-half years for the attack.
IPI: Why do you think so many attacks on journalists and others in Russia result in impunity?
EM: I think there was a kind of political order or demand in the country when Putin came to power the first time; he kind of announced war on free media. He destroyed all the non-Kremlin-friendly media. Russian TV is now under [his] control. When such attacks happen, journalists go to the police and the police don’t want to investigate. When they have to do so, because of a murder, the do it slowly because no one is pushing. Impunity is the rule and they understand that nothing will happen to them if they don’t investigate.
Behind murders, a high-level politician stands in almost all cases. Investigators understand that if they are investigating, they will have problems. When people try to criticise the regime – not just journalists, but human rights defenders too – at a high level they try to show that it’s insecure [to do so] and that they can get away with anything.
IPI: What are the challenges or dangers that individuals in Russia face when they try to seek justice?
EM: A lot of people are trying to seek justice. I haven’t really heard of threats. I do it all the time on many cases. I’m the Moscow coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. But when people do professional work – journalists and human rights defenders – it can be dangerous. Definitely.
IPI: The North Caucasus region seems to stand out as one of the most dangerous places in Russia for journalists. What other areas in Russia are dangerous for journalists?
EM: The North Caucasus is dangerous for journalists and human rights defenders. Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia – more are killed there than anywhere else. But I think the same level of danger is rising all over Russia. There is a small forest, Khimki. Many people are attacked, such as Mikhail Beketov. It reminds me of Chechnya.
It’s dangerous for journalists because they live where they investigate. The stories have close connections with local politicians and criminals. … It depends on the level of investigation and the subject. You cannot be sure in Russia that the subject you write about is not dangerous in the end. It’s very easy to stop a journalist by attacking and killing him in Russia.
IPI: Why do you think you were targeted last year?
EM: I think it happened because I was writing about drug trafficking organised by people working in drug policing in Russia. I wrote five articles about it. I think it was revenge or a threatening act to stop me. But you never know what kind of topic is dangerous or less dangerous. Anyone afraid of a journalist writing about that connection can order an attack. People can be sure they will get away with this. It’s the easiest way. If a journalist is not writing, nobody will know about the situation.
If you have any questions or would like more information about this statement, please contact IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven M. Ellis at +43 (1) 512 9011 or email sellis [at] freemedia.at.