Glasgow -- October 15, 2006
Politkovskaya: why her killers remain elusive
From Andrew Osborn in Moscow
Anna Politkovskaya had cause to contemplate her own violent death for seven long years before her fears became reality last weekend. The only question she must have asked herself, time and time again, was how it would happen. How would she exit a life that she had devoted to hard-hitting investigative journalism of the kind that can get you killed in Russia?
Her chosen topic – the breakaway republic of Chechnya and Russia’s military attempts to bring it to heel – has long been one of the most painful for the Kremlin.
Politkovskaya must have wondered: “Will I be poisoned, die in a staged car crash, perish ‘accidentally’ in the heat of Russia’s second Chechen war, or simply be shot?” During those seven years – from 1999 up until last Saturday – all four “endings” were “rehearsed”.
She was poisoned but survived; killers tried to ram her car into oncoming traffic on a busy motorway but got her mixed up with her daughter; a mortar shell exploded next to her ear “as a warning”; and she was subjected to a mock execution.
In the end, it was a hit man’s bullets that terminated her life, four 9mm rounds.
The first two bullets stopped her heart and at the age of just 48, Russia’s bravest investigative journalist was dead.
The hit man wanted to be sure though. He loosed another round into her torso before delivering a “control shot” to her forehead, the archetypal sign-off of contract killers in modern-day Russia.
Perhaps ironically, Politkovskaya did not perish in volatile Chechnya – the region she specialised in covering – but 1000 miles to the north, in the lift of her apartment building in central Moscow, in broad daylight.
She was doing her weekly shop and was in the middle of ferrying carrier bags from her car to her flat. The moment of her death – between 4.10pm and 4.30pm – is known. She had just reached the ground floor in the lift and the gunman struck as the doors slid open.
The pistol was fitted with a silencer and if anyone had been listening they would only have heard the telltale “thwump” of the bullets leaving the chamber.
Afterwards the gun, similar to a Soviet-made Makarov service pistol, was tossed into the lift next to her lifeless body to be discovered by an anguished neighbour.
Its identification number had been filed off and the hit man is thought to have worn gloves thus leaving no fingerprints.
CCTV camera images taken from the stairwell of her apartment building and from the supermarket where she did her shopping have thrown up several clues.
One thing is clear: Politkovskaya would have been hard-pressed to cheat fate last Saturday for she was not faced with one person intent on killing her but with four or even five. According to reports in the Russian media, she was tracked and her movements observed, probably for months, by a well-organised gang of men and women.
One of the gang members was apparently waiting at the bottom of her stairs in case she decided to forego the lift and another – the hit man – in front of the lift.
Meanwhile, a woman was hovering near the main entrance as a look-out, and two others were waiting in a getaway car.
The female gang members were apparently keeping the gunmen abreast of Politkovskaya’s movements and were filmed on CCTV in the supermarket where they had been following her.
Nobody has yet been arrested in connection with what is undoubtedly the most high- profile contract killing since 2000, when Vladimir Putin came to power. State TV has broadcast CCTV images of the person thought to have pulled the trigger, a tall thin man wearing a baseball cap.
But the images, which show him walking away from the crime scene, are grainy and only show him from the back and the side and it is hard to make out his face.
In a move clearly designed to show the world that her murder is being taken seriously, Yuri Chaika, Russia’s most senior prosecutor, has taken the investigation under his personal control. President Putin has promised that what he called “a despicable and unacceptable” crime will not go unpunished.
So far, little has emerged from the official investigation though. Politkovskaya’s computer hard drive has been taken away and is being trawled for clues, as are many of her notebooks.
In most countries this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but in Russia her colleagues fear that the authorities will never return her precious notes and computer archive; both are stuffed with embarrassing and highly sensitive information about Russian-run Chechnya including, it is assumed, the names and details of many of her contacts.
Indeed, the liberal campaigning newspaper she worked for, Novaya Gazeta, is conducting its own investigation into her killing. It believes the official probe is unlikely to produce results.
“We have gathered some material, but all this requires total silence,” says Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov. “I can’t disclose what we have in our hands, or what track we are moving along.”
The main theory, first floated by Novaya Gazeta, is that Politkovskaya was killed on the orders of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed prime minister of Chechnya whom Politkovskaya frequently and publicly accused of torture and murder.
Kadyrov, an ethnic Chechen, is the man the Kremlin uses to control and stabilise Chechnya, something Russian troops failed to achieve in two bloody wars since 1994. He commands a 25,000-strong army largely made up of former separatist rebels, keeps a lion and tiger as pets, and is famed for his “warlord chic” and habit of talking about death with casual bravado.
Politkovskaya hated Kadyrov and once had an interview with him during which she claimed he threatened her repeatedly.
Theory number two is closely linked to the main theory: namely that her murder was what Russians call “a provocation” and that she was killed in order to frame and discredit Kadyrov.
He turned 30 two days before her murder, making him eligible for the Chechen presidency and he is tipped to be given the job by the end of this year. Killing his most vocal critic would, the argument goes, be one way of trying to derail his attempt to become the next president.
The third theory, one that has been floated by Putin himself, is that her death may have been masterminded by shadowy forces intent on damaging Russia’s reputation on the international stage.
“We have information, and it is reliable, that many people hiding from Russian justice have long been nurturing the idea of sacrificing somebody in order to create a wave of anti-Russian feeling in the world,” the Russian president said enigmatically after her murder.
“I believe – and one of our newspapers was right saying this – that Politkovskaya’s murder inflicted greater damage on the incumbent authorities in general and the Chechen authorities in particular than her articles did.”
In a year where Russia is chairing the G8 group of nations for the first time and appears to be getting its act together thanks to record oil receipts, the Kremlin believes that some would dearly like to see Moscow’s name blackened.
That theory was given added credence by the date of Politkovskaya’s murder, October 7, the day of Putin’s 54th birthday. For now though, a “Chechen connection” of some kind seems most likely, though if Kadyrov is guilty he is playing it cool. He has admitted that he found Politkovskaya’s articles about him uncomfortable reading but has denied any involvement in her death.
“Chechens never settle scores with women,” he told reporters. “Women are sacred for us and nobody has the right to touch them. He who kills a woman is not a man at all and does not believe in the Almighty. I have never killed a woman.”
Politkovskaya’s accusatory finger, however, continues to point at him from beyond the grave.
On Thursday, Novaya Gazeta published her final unfinished article, a damning account of how forces loyal to Kadyrov are “fitting up” their enemies as terrorists and torturing and murdering them.
It included a harrowing account from a Chechen man, who alleged he was tortured, as well as a set of photographs purportedly showing the brutal murder of two “terror suspects”.
Significantly, in an interview given on Kadyrov’s birthday, two days before her murder, Politkovskaya did not mince her words about the hard man of the Caucasus. She accused him of complicity in abduction, torture, and murder, and said her dream was to see him stand trial for his alleged crimes.
“I only have one personal dream on Kadyrov’s birthday,” she told Radio Liberty. “I mean this completely seriously. I dream of him sitting in the defendant’s box in a court room and of him being tried for all his crimes after an investigation into everything that he has done.”
She even said she would be willing to appear as a witness in such a trial and suggested that a criminal case against Kadyrov and his militia – the “Kadyrovtsy” – had already been opened on the basis of articles penned by her.
While speculation about her murder abounds, many believe her death will remain a mystery like so much else in Russia.
“We need to stop reporting that this is a real investigation,” Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who represents jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, told the Sunday Herald. “It is a violation of her memory.”
What is undeniable though is that Politkovskaya’s journalistic career was extraordinary by any yardstick.
She spirited 102 elderly refugees out of war-torn Grozny, Oskar Schindler-style; she recorded some of Russian troops’ worst atrocities against Chechen civilians; she persuaded Chechen terrorists to allow her to enter a besieged Moscow theatre and give water to hostages; and she wrote several books examining Russia’s troubled relationship with Chechnya.
Her final book, Putin’s Russia, was an excoriating personal attack on the Russian leader and all he stood for.
She was once told by an angry Russian general in Chechnya that she was “more dangerous that an atomic bomb”.
“I would like to shoot you for what you have written,” he said. Years later it would seem that someone else had the same idea.
Amnesty International is organising a short vigil in memory of Anna Politkovskaya outside the Russian Consulate at 58 Melville Street, Edinburgh at 2pm on Tuesday, October 23