Russia's political murders have to stop

Thursday, October 29, 2009

MURDERS OF human rights activists in Russia have been happening with such frequency that some will be tempted to shrug at the brutal slaying on Sunday of Maksharip Aushev, who campaigned against abuses by the security forces in the Caucasian republic of Ingushetia. Mr. Maksharip was driving on a major highway, in broad daylight, when a car pulled up beside him and delivered a fusillade of bullets. His funeral came two months after that of Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of a children's charity in neighboring Chechnya, and her husband, who were shot and stuffed in a car trunk. Those murders, in turn, followed the July 15 killing of Natalya Estemirova, Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist.

No one has been arrested, much less held responsible, in any of these cases. No one has been charged for the murder last Jan. 19 of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were gunned down on a busy street just blocks from the Kremlin. The murderers of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated outside her Moscow apartment three years ago this month, remain at large. These courageous men and women had in common their effort to hold Russian security forces accountable for the extrajudicial killings, torture and rape of innocent civilians in Chechnya, Ingushetia and other Caucasus republics.

Russia leader Vladimir Putin has been shrugging at this gangsterism all along. He disparaged Ms. Politkovskaya, one of the country's most renowned journalists, shortly after her death, and he's had nothing to say about the recent killings. President Dmitry Medvedev has been a little more responsive, expressing regrets and once meeting with editors of the newspaper where Ms. Politkovskaya and Ms. Baburova worked. But he doesn't seem to have much influence over his country's security forces. A year ago Mr. Medvedev replaced the governor of Ingushetia after Mr. Aushev led protests against the killing of an opposition journalist. But the new governor was powerless to stop the latest assassination, which he blamed on "power-wielding structures."

Everyone in Russia knows who he is talking about: the lawless gunmen commanded by the Kremlin-backed ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Federal Security Service, which is the successor to Mr. Putin's KGB. Russians also know that Mr. Putin could put a stop to the state-sponsored murders if he chose to; he does not. This is not new, of course. Past Kremlin rulers have used murder to shore up their authority. Not since the time of Joseph Stalin, however, have the political killings been so blatant -- or so chillingly common.

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