A convicted criminal faces indictment for the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, as relatives and campaigners marked the fifth anniversary of her killing and criticized the investigation into it.
Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, who appeared in a Moscow court on Friday, is currently serving a lengthy jail term for attempted murder in an unrelated case. He faced indictment, but the process was delayed when he refused the services of the lawyer appointed to him.
A staunch critic of the war in Chechnya and of then President Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya won fame by exposing human rights abuses by pro-Russian Chechen security forces.
The 48-year-old mother of two was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block on October 7, 2006, which happened to be Putin’s 54th birthday. Putin stayed conspicuously silent on her murder for days, but finally dismissed her work, saying her influence was “insignificant.”
In a statement to mark the anniversary of Politkovskaya’s killing, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg called for those responsible for the killings of Russian journalists to be swiftly brought to justice.
“No effort must be spared to apprehend and bring to justice not only the actual killers, but also those who ordered these murders,” he said.
“Unless and until such critical voices receive the recognition and protection they need – and are entitled to – Russia will not get the civil society it needs,” John Dalhuisen, the rights group Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. “In its place, corruption, the abuse of power and human rights violations will continue to flourish.”
A total of 76 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, according to the U.S.-based journalists’ welfare group Committee to Protect Journalists. It says 52 of those were murdered in direct reprisal for their work.
Supporters say Politkovskaya was killed because of her reporting.
Mourners have been laying flowers and lighting candles outside 8 Lesnaya Street, the Moscow address where Politkovskaya was killed.
“With her work she challenged the omnipotence of the authorities,” journalist Yury Rost said in a dedication in the Novaya Gazeta, the paper that Politkovskaya wrote for.
The award-winning journalist had often received threats and had some unpleasant experiences in the past.
Two years before she was killed, Politkovskaya was poisoned, apparently by men she suspected were Russian secret service agents. She claimed the authorities wanted to prevent her reporting on the Beslan school siege, in which 334 people died in a botched rescue operation after a school was seized by Chechen militants.
In 2002, she acted as a negotiator with Chechens who took over a Moscow theater and held hundreds hostage.
The head of Russia’s journalism union, Vsevolod Bogdanov, described her as “straightforward” and “immersed in her work and investigation.”
Her mother, Raisa Mazepa, said Politkovskaya had dismissed the idea of having a security guard following her, even though a Russian military officer, Sergei Lapin, had sworn to avenge an article in which the journalist accused him of committing atrocities against Chechen civilians.
Chechen ‘organized’ murder
Although a number of people have been charged in connection with the killing, investigators have not named the person who ordered the murder.
Russia’s investigative unit has said the Chechen killer Gaitukayev’s gang included his nephews, Rustam, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, along with retired police officers Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov.
Lt. Col. Pavlyuchenkov, who was arrested in August, headed the surveillance department of the Moscow police at the time of the killing.
He ordered his subordinates to follow the journalist to observe her schedule and provided the suspected gunman, Rustam Makhmudov, with a weapon, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin was quoted by the Russian media as saying.
Makhmudov was arrested in May in his native Chechnya. His two brothers have been accused of acting as getaway drivers, while Khadzhikurbanov, another former police officer, have been accused of providing logistical support.
In August, investigators said they had identified those who ordered the killing but were not in a position to publish their names.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said she doubted the person who ordered the crime – or zakazshik in Russian – would be found.
“I have come across the unwillingness of the investigation to name a zakazshik for numerous times in practice,” she told RIA Novosti, adding investigators often buckle under public pressure only to “present some phony zakazshik.”
Novaya Gazeta chief editor Dmitry Muratov said the past few months had seen a major step forward in the investigation and the authorities might find a scapegoat figure to solve the crime “if they wished.”
“There could be…a temptation to appoint a zakazshik,” Muratov told reporters in Moscow, adding the authorities would have no evidence to support such an accusation.
Amnesty International criticized the slow pace of the investigation and said that in the five years since the killing of Politkovskaya next to nothing has been done to increase journalists’ safety.
“It is important that the government of Russia and the president of Russia display political will in solving this crime,” Friederike Behr, Russia researcher for the group, told RIA Novosti. “It is important for the Investigative Committee to receive such a signal from the authorities.”