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Leading article: A firebrand for freedom is extinguished

Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for her fearless investigations, for her outspoken writing and for her personal integrity. Of that there can be no doubt. She was gunned down in Moscow as she returned home from shopping. It was a prosaic and cruel end to a life lived with courage.

Ms Politkovskaya is the 12th Russian journalist to lose her life to an assassin. She was by a long way the most prominent and easily the best known outside the country. She was also, in the true sense, a dissident of the new Russia: one of a small band of journalists and intellectuals brave enough to challenge the way in which Russia's current leaders exercise their power.

She denounced their conduct in Chechnya, and the fate of the Chechens became a personal cause. She was one of very few of her compatriots to transcend the historical sense of national superiority and represent the Chechen case to Russia and to the world. And she never concealed a very personal hatred of President Putin. He was, in her view, a second-rate KGB officer who had never changed his nature, and was fast rolling back every post-Soviet freedom Russia had enjoyed.

It is tempting at such a time to forecast the end of what remains of free speech and democracy in Russia. To many of her less-driven colleagues, Ms Politkovskaya was a beacon of hope. So long as she could live, write and publish in her home country, albeit with difficulty, the hope was still alive that freedom would eventually prevail.

It is tempting, too, to imagine the hand of Mr Putin metaphorically pulling the trigger. Like dissidents down the ages, Ms Politkovskaya was a perpetual irritant to the powerful. Yes, Mr Putin and his Kremlin may have an easier ride without her. But there is also a sense in which her murder could not have happened at a worse time. It serves to reinforce all the most negative stereotypes of Mr Putin's Russia at the very time when the Kremlin has started to understand the need to improve its image abroad.

In recent weeks, Russia has experienced an upsurge in contract killings, and by no means all the victims are enemies of the Kremlin. The deputy head of the Central Bank, who campaigned against money-laundering, was murdered last month.

But whoever stands behind the murder of Ms Politkovskaya, Mr Putin cannot escape political responsibility for a climate in which the law is so readily flouted, contract killings are no rarity, and those who take a public stand - whether against the Kremlin or corruption - fear for their lives. We can only hope that the shock of Anna Politkovskaya's death will inspire others in Russia to continue her cause.