MOSCOW (AFP) – The execution-style slaying of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was almost alone in Russia in reporting human rights abuses during the war in Chechnya, has sparked outrage in Russia and abroad.
The United States and the Council of Europe joined Russian politicians, journalists and human rights activists in condemning her murder at her home in central Moscow late Saturday.
The former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, part-owner of the newspaper where Politkovskaya worked, described her killing Sunday as “savage” and “a blow to the entire democratic, independent press,” Interfax news agency reported.
Politkovskaya, 48, was shot in her apartment building as she stepped out of a lift on her way to fetch shopping bags from her car. The killer first fired in her chest, then finished her off with a shot to the head, Russian news agencies quoted police sources as saying.
Colleagues said they were sure she had been murdered in connection with her reporting. Her newspaper, the bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta, revealed she had been preparing an article on torture in Chechnya for Monday’s edition.
“She had several important photographs which showed all of this. This was her material. It was going to be published in Monday’s issue. We have some of her notes and of course we will partly publish this material,” editor in chief Dmitry Muratov said on NTV television Sunday.
Police confirmed that a leading theory was “murder in connection with the victim’s social or professional duties”.
She was the 42nd journalist killed in Russia since the Soviet collapse, and the 12th in a contract-style murder since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Police released security camera footage showing the chief suspect, a man wearing dark clothing and a dark baseball cap.
Investigators were examining Politkovskaya’s body and a 9mm Makarov pistol found at the scene, the Moscow prosecutor’s office told RIA Novosti.
Prosecutors also removed for examination two box loads of documents from her office at the bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta, as well as her computer hard-drive and diary.
Grave-faced, with large reading glasses and grey hair, Politkovskaya, the mother of two grown-up children, never resembled the cliched image of the war reporter.
However, she was almost the last Russian journalist still covering human rights abuses and corruption during the more than decade-old Chechen conflict.
She had received several prizes for her daring investigations, including the Russian Union of Journalists’ Golden Pen award and the Journalism and Democracy award from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
She was also the author of several books scathingly critical of the Russian authorities, including “Dirty War: A Russian reporter in Chechnya,” and “Putin’s Russia”.
Her harrowing reportage stood out increasingly in a country where following Putin’s rise to power journalists have all but abandoned criticism of the Kremlin or the conflict in Chechnya.
She had received previous death threats and, in 2004, claimed that she had been poisoned by the secret services.
“There was always a constant feeling something would happen to her,” Oleg Panfilov at the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media rights group, said.
Russia’s public chamber, an officially backed civil society body, on Sunday described her murder as “a blow at the most important institution of democracy — free speech”.
Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president, Alu Alkhanov, also voiced outrage and regret overnight at Politkovskaya’s murder, urging investigation and punishment of “all who stood behind this”.
“Though our views on what is happening in Chechnya were completely different, Politkovskaya was not indifferent to the Chechen people’s fate,” Alkhanov said, adding that “I and my colleagues sincerely regret what happened, and give our condolences to her family and friends.”
There was also swift condemnation of the slaying abroad, with US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack saying the United States was “shocked and profoundly saddened by the brutal murder”.
“The United States urges the Russian government to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation in order to find, prosecute, and bring to justice all those responsible for this heinous murder,” he said.
The Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe likewise stressed the need for a thorough and transparent investigation, given Russia’s poor record in resolving crimes against reporters.
“It is extremely important to break the circle of inconclusive investigations in regard of the recent murders of journalists in Russia,” the OSCE’s media freedom representative, Miklos Haraszti, said.
Joel Simon, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described Russia as “one of the most murderous places in the world for journalists and it has a long history of impunity in these killings.
“This is the time for Russian authorities to reverse this years-long assault on independent journalism by bringing Anna Politkovskaya’s killers to justice.”