Hundreds protest at murder of Putin's fiercest critic

Anna Politkovskaya's intelligent bespectacled face stared back from a small portrait pinned up outside her Moscow apartment block yesterday. Russia's most famous and controversial crusading investigative journalist was dead, cut down by two shots from a hitman's pistol.

One of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics would not be penning any more stinging critiques of a man she scathingly referred to as "a product of the country's murkiest intelligence service".

And perhaps more significantly she would not be exposing any more of the chilling human rights abuses committed in Chechnya, abuses she alleged were perpetrated by the troubled republic's Kremlin-installed leadership.

Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother of two, was murdered on Saturday, Mr Putin's 54th birthday. Perhaps the assassin had a grim sense of occasion.

Hundreds of demonstraters gathered in Moscow's Pushkin Square. "The Kremlin has killed freedom of speech," read one placard, while another bearing a photograph of Mr Putin proclaimed: "You are responsible for everything."

Ludmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the murder was political. "People who tell the truth here get killed because nothing could be said to object to what Anya was writing about."

As the modest portrait outside her home slowly became a shrine to her extraordinary life, complete with flowers and flickering candles, Russia's prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, said he was taking personal charge of the murder investigation, a procedure reserved for the country's biggest crimes.

Novaya Gazeta, the liberal newspaper that Politkovskaya worked for, announced it was offering a reward of 25 million roubles (£500,000) to anyone who helps track down her murderers.

State television broadcast grainy footage of a thin, baseball cap-clad man thought to be the killer caught on CCTV. But the image was of his back and police sources said the people who ordered the hit may have already murdered him to cover their tracks.

Mourners, journalists and other onlookers wandered in and out of Politkovskaya's apartment building staring grimly at a bullet hole at head height in the lift in which she was murdered. Statements of shock and sorrow poured in from around the world but from the Kremlin and from Mr Putin there was an awkward silence.

Politkovskaya's relationship with the government was never easy as she openly called for Mr Putin to be replaced and begged him to remove Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed Chechen prime minister she accused of kidnapping, torturing, and murdering civilians.

Mr Kadyrov always denied the allegations arguing that his private army, the so-called Kadyrovtsy, were putting the war-riven republic back on its feet using legal methods and were trying to catch the shadowy forces responsible for a constant stream of disappearances.

But for Politkovskaya, the region and its complex vortex of violence was a vocation and she had made exposing official wrongdoing there her duty. Had she not been gunned down, an article bearing her byline would have appeared in Novaya Gazeta today detailing allegations of torture and worse against the Kadyrov regime.

In the last interview she gave, on Radio Liberty two days before she was killed, she called for the Chechen strongman to be tried for his alleged crimes and said she was ready to appear as a witness in his trial.

She claimed to have photographic and documentary evidence of a specific case in which she said he was complicit in the abduction and torture of two people.

Her editors took the bold step yesterday of publicly naming Mr Kadyrov as a prime suspect on their website and said they had decided to conduct their own investigation into her killing. "Today we don't know who killed her and what for. We can only put forward two main hypotheses," they wrote. "Either it was Ramzan Kadyrov's revenge; she wrote and spoke a lot about his activities. Or it was done by those who want suspicion to fall on the Chechen prime minister who has just passed the 30-year-old threshold and is therefore eligible for the Chechen president's job."

Mr Kadyrov, a "Hero of Russia" and the Kremlin's point man in Chechnya, said he was shocked by the murder and urged people not to jump to conclusions before a through investigation had been completed. "One cannot speculate and argue at the level of rumours and gossip," he said. He called the killing a blow against freedom of speech. " Politkovskaya's articles were not always objective," he said, "but it was her point of view."

Her murder will reinforce fears about the dangers that Russian journalists face. It is the most high-profile killing of a journalist since the US-born editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, was gunned down in Moscow in 2004. That murder, like that of almost every journalist killed to order since 2000 when Mr Putin came to power, remains unsolved.

The US State Department issued a sharp statement yesterday urging the Kremlin to do more to protect journalists. "The intimidation and murder of journalists, 12 in Russia in the past six years, is an affront to free and independent media and democratic values," it said.

The European Union called on Russian authorities to launch "a thorough investigation" into the killing, which it described as a "heinous crime". The French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said in a statement: "This crime cannot go unpunished."

Politkovskaya was acutely aware of the risks she ran. "People sometimes pay with their lives for saying out loud what they think," she mused in December.

'People tried to frighten her but she stayed strong'

This is an edited extract from a tribute to Anna Politkovskaya in 'Novaya Gazeta'

She was beautiful. And with the passing of the years she became only more beautiful. Do you know why? Simply because we get our faces from God ready-made and then shape them ourselves according to how we live our lives. Another thing that people say is that when people get older their soul starts to show through their face. In her case her soul was beautiful.

She was surprisingly courageous. More courageous than many and more courageous than all these macho types in their armoured jeeps surrounded by bodyguards. She received threats and people tried to frighten her by following her and searching her apartment. "Our" paratroopers arrested her in Chechnya and threatened to shoot her. She was poisoned when she flew to Beslan. She may have been less physically healthy after all of this but her conscience remained as strong and as pained as ever.

Many people - even Novaya Gazeta fans - at times said: "Your Politkovskaya has gone too far this time." It was not too far! She always wrote the truth. It's a completely different matter that this truth often turned out to be so awful that many people refused to accept it.

They didn't just kill a journalist, a human rights activist, and a citizen, but also a beautiful woman and a mother. For as long as Novaya Gazeta exists her killers will not sleep soundly.

Silenced opponents of the Kremlin

Dmitry Kholodov

Following an anonymous phone call to his office in October 1994, the journalist travelled to a Moscow train station to collect what he thought was a briefcase of documents that would help him in his exposés of corruption within Russia's military. The briefcase exploded, killing him and wounding a colleague. Six military officers were acquitted of his murder in 2004.

Larissa Yudina

Her battered body was found in June 1998, a day after she failed to return from a meeting with an anonymous caller. She had been stabbed and had a fractured skull. As editor of the only non-government newspaper in Russia's autonomous Kalmykia region, she had made powerful enemies. Members of the Kalmykia president's inner circle were later implicated in her death.

Galina Starovoitova

A human rights campaigner and leading liberal politician, she was gunned down by hired killers in November 1998 as she left her apartment in St Petersburg. Supporters claimed the killing could only have been political because she had few business interests. Although two hitmen were eventually jailed for her murder, no one has been prosecuted for ordering the killing.

Sergei Yushenkov

As co-chairman of Russia's leading opposition party, Liberal Russia, Yushenkov was a fierce critic of the Kremlin. He had lambasted what he saw as increasingly anti-democratic legislation and was extremely critical of the Russian government's wars in Chechnya. He was killed in April 2003 by a shot to the chest outside his Moscow apartment. Four men were convicted of his murder.

Paul Klebnikov

The US-born editor of Russia's Forbes magazine was shot outside his office in July 2004, just three months after taking up the position. No one has been convicted of his murder and, even as he lay dying, he was unable to think of anyone who might order such an attack. He had written extensively on crime and corruption following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Andrei Kozlov

The deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank had made it his mission to clear up the corrupt banking system and was murdered last month for doing so. Two gunmen opened fire on his car as he left a football stadium. One week earlier he had called for a lifetime ban on bankers found guilty of tax crimes and fraud. He had also taken away licences from Russian banks he thought to be corrupt.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments