By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
MOSCOW, Jan. 19 -- A prominent Russian human rights lawyer who often clashed with the security services was shot and killed along with a student journalist investigating neo-Nazi activity on Monday in central Moscow, prompting grief and outrage from colleagues who suspect they were targeted for their work.
The brazen daytime attack occurred moments after the lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, 34, stepped out of an afternoon news conference he had called to protest the release on parole a few days earlier of the highest-ranking Russian officer convicted of atrocities in the Chechen war.
Authorities said a gunman wearing a dark ski mask shot Markelov in the head on a street not far from the Kremlin. The journalist, Anastasia Baburova, 25, may have attempted to stop the assailant, and he shot her in the head as well before escaping into a nearby subway station, officials said.
Markelov died on the sidewalk, and Baburova, a Moscow State University student writing freelance pieces for the independent biweekly Novaya Gazeta, succumbed on an operating table a few hours later.
Human rights activists expressed anger and sorrow, and many said the attack recalled the 2006 shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative reporter for Novaya Gazeta whose killing sparked an international outcry about deteriorating freedoms in Russia.
Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of Russia's oldest human rights organizations, described Markelov as an "exceptionally selfless" young man and condemned his slaying as "a disgrace for our country."
Sobbing during a phone interview, she added: "Not a single person can feel safe here!"
Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said some witnesses told police the gunman shot Baburova after she tried to stop him, but others said he appeared to target her as well.
Baburova began writing for the newspaper in October and had been examining neo-Nazi groups in Moscow and following court cases involving them, he said.
Markelov, whom friends said was survived by a wife and young children, had represented labor unions, environmental groups and journalists, including Politkovskaya. But he was best known for his aggressive work on behalf of victims of torture and other crimes committed by the Russian security forces during the Chechen war.
Markelov had given a series of interviews in recent days challenging a court's decision to grant parole to Yuri Budanov, a former Army colonel who was convicted in 2003 on charges related to the killing of an 18-year-old Chechen woman whom he believed to be an enemy sniper.
Budanov, a decorated tank commander, admitted abducting and then strangling the woman, Elza Kungayeva, in a fit of rage while questioning her in his quarters in March 2000. After an initial acquittal on grounds of temporary insanity, he was stripped of his rank and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Despite the conviction, Budanov continued to enjoy some public sympathy in Russia, and his supporters repeatedly sought his early release. Over the objections of Chechen officials and human rights groups, he walked free Friday, about 15 months before the end of his sentence.
Markelov, who represented Kungayeva's family, received death threats that day warning him to drop the case and stop trying to block Budanov's release, according to Vissa Kungayev, the father of the slain Chechen woman.
"I told him, 'Well, let's stop it, then.' But he said, 'No, Vissa, let's push ahead,' " Kungayev told the Reuters news agency from Norway, where the family lives in exile.
Budanov is a hated figure in Chechnya, and Markelov argued that his release undermined the Russian government's claims of equal justice in the region and could provoke new violence. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed strongman in Chechnya, whom Markelov clashed with in other cases, spoke out against the parole.
Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the government's top human rights official in Chechnya, said he had no doubt the shooting was related to Markelov's work on the military's crimes in the region, particularly the Budanov case. But Budanov's attorney, Alexei Dulimov, told state television his client had nothing to do with the lawyer's shooting.
"He doesn't know him and has never seen him," he said.
Grigory Shvedov, editor of the Internet news site Caucasian Knot, said Markelov had made many enemies over the years. In 2004, he was beaten in a Moscow subway station while pursuing the prosecution of a police lieutenant in Chechnya accused of torture in one of Politkovskaya's reports.
"No more speeches for you, then!" one of his assailants shouted before knocking him unconscious. But the police officer was later sentenced to 11 years in prison.
In his final news conference, Markelov urged prosecutors to pursue charges against Budanov that were never investigated and he objected to procedural errors in the parole decision.
"I try to resolve these issues inside the country," he said. "But if the prosecutors and the court hide in bunkers, if they all stick their heads in the stand and they all play like ostriches, I will be forced to take the case to international court."