On Saturday 7 October 2006, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wasjust about to publish a report on torture and murder in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
By: Joan Smith, 31 August 2008
Under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin, Russia fought two savage wars against Chechen separatists; Politkovskaya had championed both the civilian population in Chechnya, who suffered atrocities at the hands of Russian forces, and the mothers of Russian conscripts who were denied information about how their sons died.
At some point in the day, which happened to be Putin's 54th birthday, Politkovskaya visited a supermarket near her home in Moscow and was trailed home by a man with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He was capturedon CCTV entering her apartment block, where he carried out a clinicalkilling.
It took three days for President Putin to react to the international outcrythat followed the assassination of one of Russia's few remaining independentjournalists. When he was finally prodded into a response, Putin claimed thatPolitkovskaya's work had "minimal" influence and dismissed her murder as anattempt to stir up anti-Russian feeling.
In June this year, four men were finally charged in connection with theassassination: two Chechens, a police officer and a lieutenant-colonel inthe FSB, the organisation which succeeded the KGB, who is accused ofsupplying the reporter's address to her killers. But there has yet to be atrial, and the hard fact is that most murders of reporters in Russia gounpunished; 21 were killed during Putin's eight-year presidency, making itthe third most dangerous country in the world for journalists. There hadbeen an earlier attempt to disable or kill Politkovskaya two years beforeher death, when she was poisoned on a flight to North Ossetia to cover theBeslan school siege. She awoke in hospital to discover that her medicalrecords had gone missing.
Less than a month after she died, violence against opponents of the regimespilled over into London when assassins targeted the author and former KGBman Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. TheRussian government has refused to allow the chief suspect in Litvinenko'smurder, a former KGB operative called Andrei Lugovoi, to stand trial inLondon.
This is 21st-century Russia, where basic human rights are regarded withcontempt. The apparatus of civil society is steadily being dismantled, withlocal and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) struggling to copewith onerous reporting requirements and sudden changes in their tax status.Amnesty International's most recent report on Russia says that theauthorities have become increasingly intolerant of dissent or criticism,branding it as "unpatriotic", and claims that torture is widespread againstdetainees and prison inmates.
The authoritarian tendencies of the state were causing alarm long beforePrime Minister Putin (as he now is, although no one doubts that he remainsin charge) masterminded the invasion of Georgia, and Russia's behaviourthere has finally forced the rest of the world to pay attention to somethingmany world leaders would prefer to ignore.
[...] Amnesty has suggested that up to 25,000 civilians were killed in the secondChechen war and another 5,000 are missing. The European Court of HumanRights has ruled against Russia on 31 occasions over human rights violationsin Chechnya. Two months ago, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs called onFrance to use its EU presidency to urge Russian compliance with the court'sdecisions.
It was President Nicolas Sarkozy of France who rushed to the region earlierthis month and brokered the peace deal with Georgia. As things stand, Russiais illegally occupying territory belonging to another European nation, anddoing little to prevent human rights abuses.
Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was foolish to send troops intoSouth Ossetia at the beginning of this month, and he was displaying worryingauthoritarian tendencies of his own before the current crisis. But theRussian claim to have entered South Ossetia in defence of human rights is asspecious as the notion that it respects the right of minorities toself-determination, a lie exposed by the mass graves in Chechnya.
Its motive in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazialast week was pure mischief, as provocative in international terms asBritain or any other European country suddenly recognising the independenceof Chechnya and it was roundly condemned by the G7 group of leadingdemocracies.
[...] What the EU must not do is accept the pernicious argument that it has a special right to intervene in the states which share its borders.
Two days ago, Human Rights Watch announced that satellite images showed that ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia had been torched, revealing "compelling evidence of war crimes and grave human rights abuses". This is exactly what Russian troops did in Chechnya and it reveals the ugly face of Putin's Russia, an extreme nationalist and expansionist state which Anna Politkovskaya died to expose.