Why can't Russia solve its human rights crimes?

Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:12 PM

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT President Dmitry Medvedev made a show of reacting swiftly to the latest brutal attack on a journalist. Over the weekend he ordered his government's top prosecutor and interior minister to investigate the case of Oleg Kashin, who was nearly beaten to death outside his Moscow apartment; among other things, most of his fingers were broken and one was torn off at the joint. "The criminals must be found and punished," Mr. Medvedev tweeted. This would be encouraging - except for the fact that those responsible for past beatings and murders of Russian journalists and civic activists have never been held accountable, despite similar presidential pledges.

Take the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison one year ago after being detained and abused by a group of senior officials he had accused of corruption. Mr. Medvedev promised to get to the bottom of the case, but those behind Mr. Magnitsky's death have not been punished, though their identities are well known. The brave human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered in Chechnya in July 2009; Mr. Medvedev's public pledge of justice in her case also remains unfulfilled.

In January 2009, human rights lawyer Stanislaw Markelov and another journalist, Anastasia Barburova, were gunned down in broad daylight on a busy street just blocks from the Kremlin. Mr. Medvedev said their killers would be found; he even paid a visit to Ms. Barburova's newspaper. Nearly two years later, no one has been arrested.

In all, 18 Russian journalists have been murdered since 2000. Not one of the cases has been solved. Another reporter who wrote about one of the same stories that Mr. Kashin covered - the controversial construction of a highway through a forest outside Moscow - was viciously beaten and left crippled two years ago. The result was the same: no arrests. On Monday, yet another journalist, Anatoly Adamchuk, who was covering protests about a different highway, was hospitalized after being attacked.

Few Russians believe that this impunity is due to the fecklessness of police and prosecutors. Rather, it arises from the fact that most or all of the crimes are sponsored by senior government officials or people close to them. The highway near Moscow, for example, is being financed by a crony of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr. Medvedev's de facto superior. Mr. Kashin's reporting about the road was attacked on the Web site of a Kremlin-sponsored youth movement, which declared that "Journalist-traitors need to be punished!"

Mr. Medvedev has been saying for the last year that Russia badly needs to attract Western investment to modernize its economy. That's why he has repeatedly proclaimed an end to what he once called "legal nihilism" - and why he promises action following attacks on civic activists and journalists. Neither the Obama administration nor any other Western government has held the Russian president accountable for his failures to deliver. That's probably one reason the crimes continue.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company