Russia, Disgraced Over Assassinations

Saturday, July 18, 2009

IN RUSSIA, a surefire way to curtail one's life expectancy is to tell truths and pose questions that are inconvenient to the Kremlin and its loyalists. That is particularly so for journalists, human rights activists and others who dare to criticize the supremely brutal regime in the southern Russian region of Chechnya, which, with the Kremlin's full backing, has prosecuted a blood-soaked anti-insurgency campaign.

The latest truth-teller to be assassinated, Natalya Estemirova, who was kidnapped, shot to death and dumped on a roadside Wednesday, was also among the bravest. Ms. Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother of a teenage daughter, defied the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, by relentlessly documenting a campaign of torture, abductions, intimidation and extrajudicial executions carried out by security forces under his control. And despite repeated threats to her life -- including, according to her associates, explicit ones made to her face by Mr. Kadyrov himself -- Ms. Estemirova pursued her work while living in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Appallingly, Russian leaders, particularly Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have barely managed to stifle their yawns at some such murders in the past, including killings that took place on the streets of Moscow. The fact that Western governments took notice of that indifference no doubt prompted a quick condemnation this week from Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, in response to Ms. Estemirova's death. But the fact remains that dozens of contract-style murders of those who unearth ugly truths have gone unsolved, and there's little reason to hope that Russia's shambolic justice system will do any better in resolving this latest outrage.

The list of those whose killers remain unknown or at large is long and varied, and testifies to Russia's culture of lawlessness and impunity. It includes, among many others:

-- Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who campaigned for Chechen victims of Moscow's policies, gunned down in January a few blocks from the Kremlin, along with a young journalist who tried to intervene.

-- Anna Politkovskaya, the superb Russian journalist whose work illuminated horrific abuses in Chechnya, assassinated in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

-- Sergei Yushenkov, a prominent member of Russia's parliament and fierce critic of the Kremlin, shot dead in front of his Moscow home in 2003.

-- Paul Klebnikov, American editor of the Russian-language edition of Forbes magazine who did trailblazing investigations of Moscow's super-wealthy oligarchs, assassinated in 2004 on a Moscow street.

Those murders and dozens of others, as well as the state's evident inability or unwillingness to solve them, subvert Russia's demands to be included in the ranks of civilized nations. For the country, these crimes are a disgrace; for the leadership in the Kremlin, they are an indictment.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company