Reporters Without Borders visited Russia from 23 to 25 January with two aims - to pay tribute to human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta’s young reporter, Anastasia Baburova, who were gunned down on 19 January in Moscow, and to investigate the possible reasons for their murder.
“Even if no hypothesis should be ruled out, the information we obtained indicates that particular attention should be paid to the possibility that this double murder was linked to a very violent attack in November on Mikhail Beketov, a journalist based just outside Moscow in Khimki,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge those in charge of the investigation not to neglect this angle.”
The press freedom organisation continued : “The situation of Russian journalists based in the provinces is particularly difficult. They are confronted with local authorities who wield a great deal of power and they usually lack the resources of their Moscow-based colleague. Nonetheless, their work is just as important.”
The organisation added : “Journalists and human rights activists have been traumatised by last week’s double murder, and we will follow the investigation with the utmost attention. The authorities should react to the very probable link between this double murder and the attempted murder of Beketov by taking measues to combat the impunity prevailing in Khimki.”
Markelov was silently buried at 11 a.m. on 23 January in Moscow’s Ostankinskoye Kladbish cemetery. Hundreds of people came to pay tribute to the lawyer, who had acted for the victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya and for many journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006. The head of the Reporters Without Borders Europe and ex-USSR desk attended the funeral and interviewed Markelov’s relatives, journalists and human rights activists.
The editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda, a newspaper based in the Moscow satellite city of Khimki, Beketov is still hospitalised and in a very serious condition as a result of the savage beating he received outside his home on 13 November. He had opposed the proposed construction of a Moscow - St. Petersburg motorway that would go through Khimki forest - a project supported by the Khimki municipal government.
Khimki mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, who is running for reelection, brought a libel suit against Beketov, who was ordered to pay 1 million roubles (25,000 euros) in damages. Markelov was his lawyer.
According to Elena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta, Beketov probably shared a lot of the information he had about the Khimki authorities with Markelov. At the time of the attack, Beketov had been about to publish an article about the business activities of the family of Galina Ragina, the mayor’s wife. Now, neither Beketov nor Markelov will be able to contribute to the debates preceding the 1 March local elections.
The only real opposition candidate was Evgenia Chirikova, the young head of the Khimki Forest Defence Association, to which Beketov belonged. But she has not been allowed to run. The mayor and one of his associates are the only two candidates with a chance of winning. Chirikova told Reporters Without Borders she is appealing against the ban on her candidature. She showed Reporters Without Borders some of the threatening SMS messages she had received.
The political tension in Khimki has affected the media. TV Tsentr dedicated its “Moment of Truth” programme on 12 and 13 January to the situation in Khimki and the attacks on journalists. Viewers in Khimki are normally able to receive the station’s signal by satellite, but not on those two days. The local parliamentary representative of the Liberal Party Labloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, has decided to file a complaint against this act of censorship.
Reporters Without Borders was also told that issues of the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta which had articles about Beketov were not distributed in Khimki.
As well as Khimkinskaya Pravda, Khimki has another independent newspaper, Grajdanskoye Sogloasiye. Its editor, Anatoli Yurov, has also been the target of violence on several occasions. He suffered concussion in the second attack, and was stabbed about 10 times in the third one. No one has ever been arrested for the attacks and his requests to the authorities for protection have been ignored.
The cases Markelov had been working on were all so sensitive that it is hard to single out any one of them as the probable cause of his murder. There are three other cases that deserve at least some consideration.
One is the case of Yuri Budanov, a former army colonel who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for the murder of a young Chechen woman, Elsa Kungayeva, and who was granted early release this month. Markelov, who represented the family of the young woman, was gunned down just after giving a news conference in which he announced his intention to appeal against Budanov’s released. He had received threatening SMS messages relating to the case.
There are at least two other cases linked to Chechnya that could have made enemies for Markelov. One involved accusations of murder and kidnapping against a former policeman known as “Cadet,” who had also threatened Politkovskaya. The other was the disappearance of Mokhmadsalakh Masayev, a young Chechen who had accused current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Novaya Gazeta of setting up secret detention centres in Chechnya. Masayev said he was abducted and tortured for four months.
What Markelov and Baburova had in common was their opposition to Russia’s extreme right-wing movements. Baburova had specialised in covering these groups, which are responsible for several hundred murders every year. Markelov, who was himself assaulted by neo-Nazis in 2004, had represented several anti-fascist activists.
Although the Budanov case was immediately assumed to have been the most probable cause of Markelov’s murder, many of the people questioned by Reporters Without Borders did not share this view.
The Association of Lawyers said Budanov had nothing to gain from Markelov’s death as he had already been released. This view is shared by Oleg Mitvol, an ecologist and deputy director of the Federal Agency for the Control of Natural Resource Use, who pointed out that Markelov was one of three lawyers acting for the Kungayeva family. Why single out him and not the other two, he asked.
Mikhail Beketov has been hospitalised at Moscow’s Sklifosovski Institute since 16 November, three days after the attack. As a result of the multiple injuries he sustained, a leg and several fingers were amputated, bone splinters were extracted from his brain and he remained in a deep coma until 27 November. He relapsed into a coma at the start of January and had to be put back on a respirator. Since then his family has been requesting his transfer to the Burdenko Hospital, which specialists in neurosurgery.
Reporters Without Borders has written to health and social development minister Tatiana Golikova supporting the family’s request for his transfer to the Burdenko Hospital. The organisation asked the minister “to do everything in your power to make this transfer possible... and thereby demonstrate you desire to help journalists when they are targeted because of their work.”
Madam Tatiana A. Golikova
Minister of Health and Social Development
Paris, 26 January 2009
Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organisation that won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005, would like to draw your attention to the state of health of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of the newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda.
The victim of a murder attempt on 13 November, Mr. Beketov is currently hospitalised at the Sklifosovskii Institute, where he is in a serious condition. His state of health deteriorated at the start of January and his family requested his transfer to the Burdenko Hospital so that he could receive appropriate treatment.
Reporters Without Borders supports this request and urges you, Madam Minister, to do everything in your power to make this transfer possible.
Mr. Beketov is a courageous journalist who narrowly escaped death in an attack that was very probably linked to his work. As a result of the serious injuries he sustained in the attack, a leg and several fingers have been amputated. His convalescence will be long and difficult. It is for this reason that we ask you to intercede on his behalf and thereby demonstrate you desire to help journalists when they are targeted because of their work.
We trust, Madam Minister, that you will appreciate the importance of this request and that, thanks to your intercession, Mr. Beketov’s serious injuries will receive the best possible treatment.