Murder and torture are the price of 'peace' in Chechnya

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The Independent Online

The grisly and unsettling details of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's final investigation into Russian-controlled Chechnya that she was working on right up until her murder on Saturday have been laid bare.

Fittingly for a journalist who made her name through her critical and hard-hitting coverage of the rebellious southern region and Russia's attempts to quell separatist sentiment there, her journalistic swan song is a damning indictment of the way Chechnya is governed.

Her last working hours appear to have been dedicated to cataloguing the Russian-backed Chechen government's alleged human rights abuses and its apparent torture and murder of terror suspects.

The Russians have fought two wars since 1994 to keep Chechnya within their borders and now claim the area is reasonably peaceful and that the process of rebuilding has started in earnest.

Moscow's hard-line approach to the largely Muslim republic bears the personal imprimatur of President Vladimir Putin.

It was Mr Putin, then Russia's Prime Minister, who in 1999 prosecuted the beginning of the Second Chechen war.

And it was Mr Putin, the former Head of Russia's Security Service, who constantly talked tough on Chechnya.

"We'll follow terrorists everywhere," he said memorably in 1999. "Should we catch them in the shithouse, we'll whack them in the shithouse."

Under his leadership, Grozny, the Chechen capital, was carpet bombed into a lunar landscape on more than one occasion and one of the first TV images of him as Russian president was of him handing out hunting knives to troops serving in Chechnya.

On one level his uncompromising stance appears to have paid off. The Kremlin has long argued that the war in Chechnya is over and that it is effectively engaged in "mopping up" operations and for the first time in a long time those words have a ring of truth about them.

Though Russian soldiers are still killed in rebel ambushes, the attacks are sporadic and the casualties small.

Nor have the rebels launched a major terror attack since the Beslan school siege in 2004 whose horror alienated many of their supporters in the West.

Shamil Basayev, the rebels most feared field commander and the so-called "Butcher of Beslan", died in mysterious circumstances earlier this year.

And according to the Russians, the number of rebel fighters holed up in the republic's fog-shrouded hills is as little as 600.

They are hopelessly outnumbered - Russia has around 50,000 federal troops garrisoned in Chechnya and 25,000 loyalist Chechen fighters at its disposal.

Moscow has therefore felt comfortable enough to withdraw many of its troops from the republic and delegate much of its day-to day-running to a Kremlin-backed government made up of Chechens.

Though still officially classed as "a zone of counter-terrorist activity", Chechnya, it is argued, is rapidly becoming a "normal" part of the Russian Federation.

But Ms Politkovskaya's final investigation painted a very different picture and suggested that the Kremlin's much-trumpeted "peace" is bought at an unacceptable price.

The contents of her final article would have made uncomfortable reading for people in high places and many Russians suspect that she may have been killed because of what she had uncovered.

Controversially, she publicly called for Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Prime Minister of Chechnya, to stand trial for his alleged involvement in the torture and murder of terror suspects. Mr Kadyrov has since admitted that he did not like her articles about him but has denied any involvement in her death saying he has never "settled a score" with a woman.

Fragments of the article she was writing at the time of her death were published in Russia yesterday by the liberal newspaper she worked for, Novaya Gazeta.

Nobody has been arrested for her murder though CCTV images suggest that she was shadowed by four people and then shot "execution-style" in the lift of her own Moscow apartment building by a man wearing a baseball cap.

Mr Kadyrov has already been named a prime suspect by her newspaper though her colleagues also agree she may have been killed to blacken his name.

This month, Mr Kadyrov turned 30, making him eligible for the Chechen presidency. He is a controversial figure, who now controls a 25,000-strong army, and there are plenty of people who would like to see Mr Putin withdraw his support for the Prime Minister.

But as things stand, Mr Kadyrov appears unassailable and is tipped to be crowned Chechen president by the end of the year.

Perhaps it was a coincidence but the bearded Premier celebrated his birthday on 5 October, two days before Ms Politkovskaya was murdered.

The day of the killing -- 7 October -- was Mr Putin's 54th birthday. Mr Kadyrov's birthday itself bore his trademark "everything is all right in Chechnya and I am the only person who can keep the peace" style and the sky literally rained with money.

The self-styled hard man of the Caucasus never likes to do things by halves and so it was that he performed a traditional Chechen dance for the cameras surrounded by 1,000- and 5,000-rouble notes (£20 and £100) that had been sprinkled on the ground around him like confetti.

The message was clear: Chechnya is no longer a war-torn trouble spot but is on the up.

To underline that point the Chechen Premier inaugurated Grozny's airport that has been painstakingly resurrected from the ashes of two separatist wars.

Commercial flights between the Chechen capital and Moscow are to start soon, something that would have been unimaginable even five years ago, and Mr Kadyrov hailed the airport as a symbol of his republic's renaissance.

Mr Kadyrov's father, Akhmat, a Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, was killed in 2004 when an explosion ripped through the sports stadium where he was reviewing a military parade.

Father and son had fought against the Russians in the mid-1990s then dramatically changed sides. Since then, Kadyrov Junior has coaxed many of his former comrades-in-arms over to the Russian side and has styled himself as Mr Putin's most reliable ally in the region.

Huge apartment block-length posters of Mr Kadyrov and Mr Putin adorn bombed-out Grozny, and the Chechen Premier has even been made a "Hero of Russia", something that angers the many federal Russian troops who fought against him in the 1990s.

In the most questionable traditions of the CIA, Mr Putin appears to have chosen Mr Kadyrov as "our sonofabitch" as part of his policy of "Chechenisation" to do what two wars could not: bring stability.

Getting an accurate picture of what is really going on in Chechnya is difficult though. The Kremlin has made reporting from there extraordinarily difficult for Western reporters, and most Russian reporters are too afraid of incurring the Kremlin's wrath to venture there.

Anna Politkovskaya was different. Judging by the material she had written for Novaya Gazeta, she was too different for somebody's liking.

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