Monday, October 09, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya slain

The crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in front of her Moscow apartment on Saturday night. She was carrying grocery bags, returning from the supermarket, when she was gunned down. The 48 year old mother of two children had received many death threats for her vociferous criticism of the corruption in Russian society and she was one of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s harshest critics. Her murder on his 54th birthday bore all the hallmarks of a contract killing. Politkovskaya was shot twice, once in the head, and the weapon thrown at her feet. A pistol and four bullets were found near her body and a murder investigation has been launched. Police are investigating using a surveillance tape of the street.

At the time of her death she was working on a story about torture in Chechnya, where a Kremlin-backed leader has taken control. The article was to be published today, according to her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent media outlets in Russia. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria. Their report shows that 42 journalists had been killed in Russia since 1992, many of them murdered in contract-style executions and most of them unsolved by Russian authorities.

Politkovskaya was born Anna Mazepa in 1958 in New York. Her Ukrainian parents were Soviet diplomats stationed at the UN headquarters. As a result, she had a freer childhood than most Soviet citizens. She knew the world beyond the Iron Curtain and also had access to banned books, which she read voraciously. She studied journalism at Moscow State University where she graduated in 1980. Her first job was with the Izvestia newspaper. Izvestia was the companion piece to Pravda. Whereas Pravda (Russian for truth) was the official organ of the Russian Communist Party, Izvestia (Russian for news) was the official views of the Soviet government.

She embraced the freedoms offered by glasnost and perestroika and by 1998 she was working for Obschaya Gazeta. They sent her to Chechnya to interview then President Maskhadov. She was to return repeatedly to the dangerous triangle between Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. She covered most of these fifty visits for another publication, Novaya Gazeta, a periodical renown for its critical coverage of the Russian administrations of Yeltsin and Putin. She made her name by writing long and vivid reports on the plight of the civilian population in Chechnya who were immersed in war since 1994. In 2000 the FSB (the former KGB) arrested her in the Chechnyan capital Grozny and kept her in a pit for three days without food or water. Her reports from the front were held in such high regard by Chechnya, that the terrorists holding 850 hostages in the Moscow theatre siege of 2003 asked for her to be their intermediary with the Russian authorities. Politkovskaya rushed home from a media awards ceremony in Los Angeles to answer the call. She spent the next two days carrying water and fruit juice to the hostages and she reported their feelings of doom and dejection to the world. Their feelings were justifiable. Russian special forces armed with gas, stormed the theatre. They killed 41 terrorists and 129 hostages in a botched shootout. She also tried to go to Beslan to report on the school hostage crisis later that year. But she became ill which prompted allegations that she had been poisoned to prevent her from reaching the school. 331 people died in the siege.

Tributes have poured in since her death. The former president Mikhail Gorbachev said of the crime: "It’s a strike against all the democratic independent press, a terrible crime against the entire country, against all of us." A US State Department spokesman said the US was "shocked and profoundly saddened by the brutal murder". The Council of Europe's secretary-general, Terry Davis, said he was deeply concerned about the circumstances in which Politkovskaya lost her life. The suspiciously quiet Kremlin has not joined in the chorus of condemnations. Russian political analyst Anna Zelkina is doubtful the murder investigation will succeed. She told the BBC "There is this series of politically motivated murders like hers. I'm afraid that there will be less and less people who would be taking the risk to report... [she's] a very difficult person to replace."

She was remembered and respected in Australia for her appearance in May to large crowds at the Sydney Writers' Festival. She was here to promote her book A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. Politkovskaya has herself become a victim of that dirty war.

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