Anna Politkovskya: 'She paid the ultimate price for integrity'

In his final essay on women of courage, Gordon Brown calls for justice in the case of Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006 for her brave reporting on Chechnya
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In October 2006, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder and once in the head, at point blank range, in the stairwell of a Moscow tenement block. It was the end of a long campaign of intimidation against her, during which she had been kidnapped, tortured, poisoned, threatened with rape and put through a mock execution.

That this should happen in a country that is a signatory to the International Declaration of Human Rights and holds a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations is deeply shocking. What is more so is that nobody was really shocked at all. Vyacheslav Izmailov, Anna's colleague at the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says he knows of at least nine previous occasions when Anna had faced assassination, and comments: "Frontline soldiers do not usually go into battle so often and survive."

Anna was born Anna Mazeppa in New York in 1958, the daughter of Soviet Ukrainian parents who worked as diplomats at the UN. After growing up in Moscow she had a successful career on Russia's main newspapers, joining Novaya Gazeta in 1999. Her columns there often reported on events in Chechnya, where she talked to the military, state officials and the police as well as visiting refugee camps and hospitals to interview those injured and uprooted by the fighting. After 9/11 she urged Western governments – which saw the Chechen campaign as Russia's contribution to the war on terror – to look closely at what was happening under that guise.

Her researchsought to exposethe scale of human rights abuses committed by Russian military forces, Chechen rebels and the Russian-backed administration led by Akhmad Kadyrov and his son Ramzan Kadyrov. She also secured the evacuation of a Grozny old people's home after writing about its bombardment during Russian action in the North Caucasus.

Early in 2001, Politkovskaya was detained by military officials in the southern mountain village of Khottuni, where she was investigating complaints from 90 families about "punitive raids" by federal forces. She interviewed Rosita, a Chechen grandmother, who had endured 12 days of beatings, electric shocks and confinement in a pit, and listened as local residents described the killings and the rape of Chechens in a concentration camp near the village of Khottuni.

When she visited the camp, Anna was interrogated and beaten by Russian troops, who found pictures of her children and explained what they would like to do to them. Later, in her own words: "A lieutenant colonel said, 'Let's go. I'm going to shoot you.' He led me out of the tent into complete darkness. After we walked for a while, he said, 'Ready or not, here I come.' Something burst with pulsating fire around me, screeching, roaring, and growling. The lieutenant colonel was very happy when I crouched in fright. It turned out that he had led me right under the 'grad' rocket launcher at the moment it was fired."

The officer then said to her: "Here's the banya [bathhouse]. Take off your clothes." Seeing that his words had no effect, he got very angry: "A real lieutenant colonel is courting you, and you say no, you militant bitch." Death stalked her for years after.

Some time later, Anna reported a conversation with Chechnya's then Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. One of his assistants said to her: "Someone ought to have shot you back in Moscow, right on the street, like they do in your Moscow." Kadyrov repeated after him: "You're an enemy to be shot..." So hers was a foreseeable death indeed.

Two weeks before his poisoning in 2007, the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko accused the authorities of ordering Anna's murder. But, in the five years since she died, nobody has been brought to justice. Fundamental questions remain. Why have all investigations into her death and all promises of prosecutions yielded nothing? And does the research she was conducting at the time of her death point to why she was assassinated? Anna's death raises questions not just about what happened to her but what is happening to Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya's death in the first decade of the 21st century is a story that could have been foretold, but a tragedy that should be unthinkable in a free world.

Only a few months before her death, Anna told a conference: "People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think." She knew that she might pay the ultimate price for her journalistic integrity and refusal to stop asking the questions that matter. Right up until her final moments, Anna was trying to give a voice to those brutalised in an endless war and ignored by the wider world; on the day of her murder, Novaya Gazeta's Chief Editor, Dmitry Muratov, reports that she had planned to file a lengthy story on torture practices believed to be used by Chechen security detachments known as the Kadyrovites.

That fearlessness must never be forgotten, and there must be an international commission to investigate both Anna's death and the human rights abuses she uncovered. Many people show incredible bravery when they find themselves in grave danger; Anna's courage lay in constantly seeking danger out in order to speak the truth. The best memorial to her would be to continue to speak it.

Gordon Brown is the former Prime Minister and author of Beyond the Crash and Courage