Moscow Rally Memorializes Slain Reporter

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 9, 2006

MOSCOW, Oct. 8 -- Hundreds of Russians attended a rally in Moscow on Sunday to commemorate Anna Politkovskaya, a veteran journalist who was fatally shot in an apparent contract killing Saturday, and the country's top law enforcement official said he was taking personal charge of the investigation because of its "particular importance and its wide resonance within society."

"The investigation will focus on possible links between the killing and Politkovskaya's work," said Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, who is now heading the probe into the journalist's death.

The killing of Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin and its proxies in the conflict in Chechnya, was the second assassination of a crusading figure in Moscow in less than a month. In September, Andrei Kozlov, a Central Bank official who had led a campaign against corruption, was gunned down as he left a soccer match in the city. That case remains unsolved.

The two killings challenge the notion that President Vladimir Putin has eradicated the vicious score-settling that marked Russian society in the 1990s or that his centralization of power has fostered stability. The killings also raise questions about whether it is safe for journalists, bureaucrats or opposition activists to challenge the country's vested interests, whether public or private.

"The murder is a diagnosis for this society," Igor Yakovenko, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said of Politkovskaya's death. "But our society is unconscious."

The Kremlin has issued no statements about the killing. Putin on Sunday held a government meeting that usually results in statements on any number of issues.

Politkovskaya, 48, was shot in the chest and head Saturday afternoon in the lobby of her apartment building in Moscow. The gunman threw the weapon at her feet, the signature of an assassin. Police say a surveillance camera just outside the building captured an image of a suspect, a young man who was wearing dark clothes and a baseball cap.

The killing of Politkovskaya, whose work had long focused on human rights abuses by Russian forces and their Chechen allies through two wars in Chechnya, generated a wave of domestic and international revulsion and calls for the Russian authorities to solve the crime -- something that signally failed to happen after the killings of other journalists here.

Politkovskaya, who worked for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was the 13th journalist killed since Putin came to power in 2000. She was the third Novaya Gazeta journalist slain in the past 15 years, according to the paper's deputy editor, Vitaly Yaroshevsky.

Politkovskaya had received numerous death threats in the past and at one point fled to Vienna after credible evidence of a plot against her surfaced. In her reporting in Chechnya, she braved the hostility of Russian officers, who feared and loathed her. In 2000, she was detained, beaten and subjected to a mock execution by her military captors. Last year, her daughter, one of two adult children, was nearly forced into oncoming traffic while driving Politkovskaya's car, which was then smashed by unknown assailants.

"It is extremely important to break the circle of inconclusive investigations . . . of the recent murders of journalists in Russia," Miklos Haraszti, a representative on media freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement. "The violent death of any member of the media stifles the free spirit of journalism. But in this case, the expediency of action is extremely important also because Anna Politkovskaya was an outspoken critic of government policies."

"It's amazing that we haven't heard a single word from Putin," said Vladimir Korsunsky, editor of the news site, who attended a roundtable discussion about the killing with other prominent journalists Sunday evening. The group called for a national day of mourning on Tuesday.

According to Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya was about to publish an exposé of torture and kidnappings by forces allied with Chechnya's prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, a frequent subject of her work.

"We never got the article, but she had evidence . . . and there were photographs," Yaroshevsky told Echo Moscow radio.

Kadyrov told the Russian news agency Interfax that he was "deeply aggrieved to hear the news of Politkovskaya's murder. I was shocked by this bloody terror act."

But he added, "One cannot speak about any 'Chechen trail' based only on assumptions."

One of Novaya Gazeta's co-owners, Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, said he was offering a nearly $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of those who ordered and carried out the killing. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also owns a minority stake in the newspaper.

The rally in Moscow on Sunday was originally organized to call attention to the plight of Georgians living in the city who have been harassed by authorities because of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia, according to human rights activists. But the Georgian focus of the event was overshadowed by Politkovskaya's death.

"Judging by the gathering today, there are people who are willing to do something," Georgy Satarov, head of the Indem Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that monitors corruption, said after speaking at the rally. "But there are not enough people to change the situation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company