Joan Smith: Putin's Russia failed to protect this brave woman

Her death demonstrates the truth of what she wrote about his lawless state

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The news came in a phone call on Saturday afternoon: Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most celebrated journalist, had been murdered in her apartment block in Moscow. This was a woman who had survived death threats, emerged alive from three days in a pit in Chechnya and recovered from an attempted poisoning on an aeroplane, only to be cornered at home. The assassin fired four times, leaving her body in the lift. Beside her lay his Makarov pistol, and four spent cartridges.

I cannot get the image out of my mind. This courageous, softly spoken woman, whom I last saw at a book launch in London, ended her life on the floor of a lift, executed at the home where she should have been safe.

Of course, I knew Anna was a marked woman but like everyone who met her, I hoped her international reputation would protect her. I was wrong. There is no protection for journalists who persist in trying to do their job in Russia, where the very idea of press freedom has become a joke.

What does exist in Russia is impunity, a climate which allows the thugs who target journalists to get away with murder. Forty-two journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, many in similar circumstances: contract killings, carried out with ruthless efficiency, and for the most part unpunished by the Russian state.

Earlier this year, two men were acquitted of the murder of the American journalist Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, who was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004. And it's not just journalists; last month, Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, was murdered in Moscow.

Since Anna's assassination, there have been many statements expressing shock and outrage. Both Reporters sans Frontières and Amnesty International condemned the killing, as did the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But where is the statement from Russia's current President, Vladimir Putin, expressing horror and shame that his country failed to protect its most celebrated reporter? Putin's silence is resounding, and it has been suggested that he would not have been devastated, on his birthday on Saturday, to hear the news that his most trenchant critic had been silenced.

In a world where journalism often means writing about the latest celebrity divorce, Anna talked about things that matter: the murders and mind-boggling atrocities carried out in the Chechen conflict. She wasn't starry-eyed about the rebels, writing movingly about the Russian mothers denied the truth about the deaths of their sons, hapless conscripts in a brutal war.

In 2001, when I met her for the first time at the London conference of the writers' organisation PEN, Anna had been forced to flee Moscow after receiving death threats from a Russian officer she had accused of crimes against civilians. Anna made a huge impression and subsequently we did what we could to keep a watch over her. I remember an occasion in 2002 when she went back to Chechnya covertly to investigate new allegations of human rights abuses and was detained; frantic phone calls followed, and we were relieved to get a message that she had turned up safe in Ingushetia. Later that year, she acted as a mediator between Russian forces and Chechen terrorists who had taken hostages at a Moscow theatre.

Last time I saw her, she was still recovering from being poisoned on a flight to North Ossetia at the height of the Beslan siege. That attempt on her life remains unsolved, allegedly because blood samples were deliberately destroyed before the toxin could be identified. First reports suggest that her murder may be connected with the story she was writing for her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, about torture in Chechnya, but there is also no doubt that she had many enemies.

Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, behind only Iraq and Algeria. This is happening now, on our doorstep, but a combination of circumstances - Putin's role in the so-called war against terror, and our dependence on Russian energy supplies - have inhibited western governments from the frank criticism his regime deserves.

That was left to people like Anna, whose tragically premature death - she was 48, and had two children - demonstrates the truth of what she wrote about Putin's corrupt, lawless state. It is too late to save her but everyone in this country who cares about press freedom should be up in arms. Her killers must be brought to justice, yes, but I also want to see the Russian state shamed into ending the climate of impunity which has allowed execution to become a daily hazard for the Russian media.

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