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Outspoken Putin critic shot dead in Moscow

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 8, 2006

MOSCOW, Oct. 7 -- Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist whose byline defined the fading craft of investigative and crusading reporting in President Vladimir Putin's Russia, was fatally gunned down Saturday in the lobby of her apartment building in central Moscow.

Politkovskaya, 48, was renowned for her probes of the brutality of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya as well as the banality of corruption permeating Russian life, from the remote provinces to the bright lights of Moscow.

Born to Soviet diplomats in New York in 1958, Politkovskaya, who also had American citizenship, chronicled nearly every major story in Russia in the past decade. Her reporting often clashed with official versions of such events as the hostage crisis at a theater in Moscow in 2002 and the bloody end of a school siege in Beslan in 2004.

She was a harsh critic of Putin's rule and was working on a story about torture in Chechnya, where a Kremlin-backed strongman has all but routed a separatist movement that sparked two bloody wars, at a cost to Russia that has yet to be measured.

The article was to be published Monday, according to her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent media outlets in a country where much of the press is timid if not directly controlled by central authorities or regional power brokers.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who is said by friends to be concerned about the increasing lack of pluralism in the country, became a minority shareholder in the newspaper this summer.

"It is a savage crime against a professional and serious journalist and a courageous woman," Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax. "It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press. It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us."

The Kremlin issued no immediate comment on the killing.

The attack was the highest-profile killing of a journalist in Russia since July 2004, when Paul Klebnikov, an American editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was gunned down outside his office. Twelve journalists have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000, and most of the cases remain unsolved.

Politkovskaya's name carried the kind of weight in Russia that the names Woodward and Hersh carry in the United States. She was unapologetically contrarian and distinguished by her willingness to go to the scene of whatever crisis captured her attention.

During the Moscow theater siege, she entered the building and spoke directly to the hostage-takers. On her way to Beslan to report on the crisis there, she became ill, leading to allegations that she had been poisoned to prevent her from reaching the school, where 331 people later died, most of them children.

"We had different positions on many issues, including issues related to the situation in the North Caucasus, but we always admitted Anna Politkovskaya's amazing fearlessness and inner freedom and her ability to defend her point of view," said Dmitry Rogozin, a member of parliament and former leader of the Motherland party.

Politkovskaya was shot twice, once in the head, at 4:20 p.m. The weapon was thrown at her feet, according to Vitaly Yaroshevsky, deputy editor in chief of her newspaper. He said police had obtained a surveillance tape from a camera on the street. The authorities described the attack as a contract killing, which they said was carried out by a young man dressed in black.

"There is no doubt she was killed for her professional activities," said Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. "She was an absolutely hard-edged person and honest journalist who tackled the toughest subjects."

Politkovskaya's newspaper said it would conduct its own investigation of the killing.

The shooting occurred on Putin's birthday and closely followed the birthday of his anointed leader in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Angry journalists here could not let the coincidence pass.

"Apparently, this was a present for the two leaders," Yakovenko said.

"Why do I so dislike Putin?" Politkovskaya had asked in her book, "Putin's Russia." "I dislike him for . . . his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies . . . for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as president."

Politkovskaya, the mother of two children, is also the author of "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya".

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists described Politkovskaya's death as a "devastating development for journalism in Russia."

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