Leading article: A cause for outrage, but not a cause for surprise


The latest edition of Novaya Gazeta will have a far greater impact than this liberal Russian newspaper is accustomed to making. The reason is that it prints fragments of the last article by the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose assassination last Saturday shocked the world. No one doubts that Politkovskaya was killed because of her courageous work as a dissident journalist in Russia. And many suspect that it was the contents of this very article that led to her death.

The piece - the latest in a long line of Politkovskaya exposés of human rights abuses in the north Caucasus region - describes the torture of suspected terrorists by Chechen security services. It is accompanied by graphic images of torture wounds and the written testimony of a Chechen man who was beaten, subjected to electric shocks and suffocated with a bag over his head to force him to confess to killings he did not commit.

Such evidence is a cause for outrage. But it should not be a cause of surprise. The brutal war that began over a decade ago when Russian troops marched into Chechnya to put down a separatist revolt may officially be over. The rebel leader Shamil Basayev may have been killed and a pro-Moscow local leader installed. But, as human rights organisations have long argued, the abuses of civilians never stopped. Prime Minister Kadyrov - a tyrant who controls his own private army, the "Kadyrovtsy" - has continued the vile practices of the Russian army. Earlier this year a secret torture dungeon was uncovered. And according to Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human rights ombudsman, civilians continue to "disappear" daily.

Moscow, which has charged Kadyrov with stamping out the remnants of the separatist movement, refuses to call anyone to account for such crimes. Moscow has continually blocked UN observers from visiting the region. In the aftermath of the 2004 Beslan school massacre, President Putin took the opportunity to drag a good deal of power back from the regions to the Kremlin in the name of "security". But Chechnya has retained a high level of autonomy. President Putin has even made Kadyrov a "Hero of Russia". There can be no clearer sign that he approves of what is going on in the region.

The influence of the Kremlin on the media means that little of this horror goes reported in Russia. Voices like Politkovskaya's have been a rarity. But where is the international condemnation? Why has the US, the self-styled champion of democracy, been silent? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have distracted international attention from the suffering of the Chechen people. And, in any case, a shameful catalogue of human rights abuses in recent years - from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib - have made it difficult for the US to criticise what has been portrayed by Moscow as part of its own domestic fight against terrorism.

But the West has not simply been silent. President Putin is actively feted by the United States as an ally in the "war on terror". Our own government, apparently terrified of diverging from the Washington line, follows suit. Meanwhile, many European nations attempt to stay on good terms with Moscow for fear of jeopardising their supplies of oil and natural gas from the "energy superpower".

It has taken the murder of perhaps the bravest journalist in modern Russia to get the world to pay attention once again to the vile abuses being perpetrated in this part of the world. If our leaders expect their condemnation of Politkovskaya's murder to be taken seriously, they will make it clear to President Putin that the criminal brutality taking place in Chechnya will no longer be ignored.

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