Putin's Russia: Post-Politkovskaya, regime tightens nooses for human rights defenders Print E-mail

According to Dagestani human rights activist Osman Boliyev within the below item #1, the assassination of the incredibly brave Anna Politkovskaya "puts us one step closer to a totalitarian regime, to true dictatorship".

Similarly, Caroline Fetscher's interview with Russian philosopher and author Michail Ryklin [see below item #2] spells out the message of Anna's assassination: "If someone like Politkovskaya can be murdered in broad daylight in such an beastly way, any of us could be next. That is a shock. All the more so because in today's Russia, most political murders are never solved".

Neither Boliyev nor Ryklin had long to wait before being proven correct, with the announcement [see below item #3] that "The highest court in the Nizhny Novgorod region on Friday ordered the closure of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights group that has exposed abuses against civilians in Chechnya"!

And yet with all of this information very much in the public domain, barely a whisper from the corridors of power within the so-called axis of good, the notable exception [and not for the first time] being Germany's Angela Merkel - Lynette

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Monday, October 16, 2006. Issue 3519. Page 1.

#1 Politkovskaya's Legacy of Courage Lives On

By Anastasiya Lebedev
Staff Writer

Osman Boliyev met Anna Politkovskaya just twice, but he credits the late investigative journalist with saving his life.

In February of this year, Politkovskaya wrote an article about Boliyev, a Dagestani human rights activist. She described how police had tortured him and how prosecutors had fabricated the case against him.

Boliyev believes the publicity generated by the article influenced public opinion and helped secure his release.

Politkovskaya, an internationally recognized journalist who wrote impassioned articles about human rights abuses for Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was murdered Oct. 7 in the elevator of her apartment building. Prosecutors and Novaya Gazeta believe the killing resulted from Politkovskaya's professional activities.

"By saving my life, Anna Politkovskaya gave up her own," Boliyev said. "Her death puts us one step closer to a totalitarian regime, to true dictatorship."

Boliyev, the head of Romashka, a human rights organization in Dagestan, was detained on a weapons possession charge in November 2005, after he had helped two Dagestani families file lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights. One family had lost a member to kidnapping, the other to murder.

Boliyev was acquitted in February, and the case against him was found to have been fabricated.

Boliyev said three judges who refused to find him guilty had been dismissed during the trial. A fourth judge finally acquitted Boliyev, allowing him to get treatment for the multiple injuries he had suffered in jail.

"I was close to having a heart attack," Boliyev said. "They had damaged my spine, heart, kidneys and head. It was terrible."

"After Anna Politkovskaya's article appeared, there was a public outcry and things changed very quickly," he said.

This past summer, Boliyev learned new charges had been filed against him: He was suspected of aiding the terrorists who seized Moscow's Dubrovka Theater in October 2002.

Boliyev and his family fled to Ukraine and appealed to the United Nations for political asylum. The family now lives in Sweden.

Many refugees from the conflict in the North Caucasus share Boliyev's sense of indebtedness to Politkovskaya. On its web site, Novaya Gazeta created a forum for condolences after her death. The forum contains a number of postings from refugees now living in Europe.

Even if she didn't help a family directly, Politkovskaya greatly improved Chechen refugees' chances of receiving political asylum in the Netherlands, said Islam Bashirov, who previously headed the local Chechen community there.

At a 2003 photo exhibition in Amsterdam devoted to Chechnya, Politkovskaya delivered a talk about the persecution Chechens faced across Russia. Refugees were able to introduce her speech in court as expert testimony to back up their asylum claims, Bashirov said.

"The Dutch government was trying to close its eyes and force refugees out by saying they could live elsewhere in Russia," Bashirov said. "Many courts were closing people's [asylum application] cases by saying that the situation in Russia was normal, when in fact people faced open discrimination."

Bashirov himself received asylum after his arrest on a trumped-up weapons charge in 1999.

Nina Levurda sobbed as she talked about Politkovskaya last week. Levurda sued the Defense Ministry when the army refused for six months to provide her with information about the death of her son, Lieutenant Pavel Levurda, in Chechnya.

"I'm certain that I won the case thanks to her," said Levurda, a resident of Ivanovo. "She wrote an article about my son and how the trial was conducted improperly. She helped me out financially, too, and I'll remember that for the rest of my life -- that someone I saw for the first time was so gracious toward me."

Pavel Finogenov, whose brother died in the Dubrovka hostage crisis, said that Politkovskaya played a leading role in exposing irregularities during the trials that followed.

The crisis ended when Special Forces commandos pumped a knockout gas into the theater and then stormed it. Most of the victims among the hostages died as a result of the gas. Many relatives of the victims filed suit against the government.

"Anna was the only reason the public found out what was going on in the courtroom," Finogenov said.

Politkovskaya also offered her services as a negotiator during the Dubrovka crisis.

"She was the thread that connected the hostages to the people outside the police cordon," said Finogenov, who himself waited outside the theater while his brother with his fiancee languished inside.

The people Politkovskaya wrote about generally remember her as being honest, open and compassionate to the point of neglecting her own needs.

Levurda remembered Politkovskaya giving her a ride to the Novaya Gazeta office. "We were in her old Zhiguli, and I noticed she was wearing dress shoes -- in November. I said, 'Why are you wearing dress shoes, it's cold!' To which she replied, 'I don't have time to think about shoes.'"

  Moscow's credibility is on the line over its ability to prosecute those responsible for the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Sunday, Reuters reported.

Barroso said he would raise the murder with President Vladimir Putin in person, adding he would be "frank" in his discussions.

"We want those who have assassinated Mrs. Politkovskaya, a great fighter for freedom of expression, to be brought to justice," Barroso told BBC Television.
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 October 13 2006

#2 Nobody is safe anymore

Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin on the new degree of fear in Russia after Anna Politkovskaya's murder

Der Tagesspiegel: Herr Ryklin, last Saturday the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her criticism of the government, was shot in Moscow. What does this murder mean for Russia?
Michail Ryklin: This criminal offence is a signal, a highly symbolic act. Until this happened, nobody would have thought that Anna Politkovskaya (more) was touchable, because we – the critics of the government - saw her as a figurehead of independent journalism in Russia, a woman who is highly respected in the West and has received many prizes.

She seemed to be protected.
Yes. We assumed that Vladimir Putin and his system valued Politkovskaya as a democratic symbol and that her newspaper, the independent Novaya Gazeta, like the broadcaster Echo of Moscow represented a democratic showcase for the Kremlin elite that they wouldn't want to do away with - or couldn't. Even papers of less significance like the government-critical magazine of the chess champion Garry Kasparov seemed a guarantor that this niche would survive in some form. What is happening now is something like a paradigm change.

And what is it exactly?
Until now, we, the critical voices, believed in a civilisational minimum at the least, that society stood on a more or less solid base. Now the message is: none of you are safe any more. Notability, Western friends, respect and awards can no longer protect us against violent attacks on the freedom of expression. If someone like Politkovskaya can be murdered in broad daylight in such an beastly way, any of us could be next. That is a shock. All the more so because in today's Russia, most political murders are never solved.

What made Anna Politkovskaya so dangerous in the regime's eyes? On Tuesday in Dresden, Putin called her a journalist with "extreme views." Was it that she named corrupt functionaries or torturers in the Chechen war? Are journalists safe as long as they don't name names?
That alone is not enough. "Putin" is just a synonym for an entire system. The vertical power structure on top of which Putin sits includes the army, the justice system, the Duma, the state-run media, the secret service, the police – and the orthodox church. Although the principle of secularism – the separation of church and state - is anchored in the Russian constitution, the Kremlin does not abide by it. At Christmas, for example, Putin and his functionaries receive the blessing of the patriarchs in what amounts to a VIP lounge of the church. He says they should "save Russia" and anyone who counters the "state religion" has to reckon with reprisals.

In your book "Mit dem Recht des Stärkeren" (With the rights of the stronger) on "Russian culture in times of a controlled democracy," you describe a case that you experienced and that you analyse as a symptom of society.
It was the vandalising riots against the art exhibition in the Sakharov Centre in Moscow (more) in 2003, when a group of extremely nationalistic people ravaged the exhibition "Caution, Religion!" which was a playful and critical look at religious symbols. One of the artists being exhibited was my wife Anna Altschuk. We spent five months in court, pretty much the whole time. At first the trial was against the perpetrators but the public prosecutor acquit them on a pretext. Then there was a trial against those who had been attacked. Against the director of the Sakharov Centre for "fomenting national and religious strife." The artists were threatened with prison sentences. The national Duma claimed before the attorney general that the artists had offended the sensibilities of orthodox believers.

What happened in the court room?
We were accosted by a practically illiterate mob, made the object of anti- Semitic insults. We received death threats. When I asked the judge why this kind of behaviour was being permitted, I was told: "You provoked this behaviour!" Amnesty International took up the cause on behalf of the artists, with a personal appeal to Putin. My book looks at the fatal repression of the traumatic history under Stalin, and Russian xenophobia and psychosis as a general tendency to negate the principle of reality.

Your book addresses the case of the oligarch Mikhail Chodorkovsky (more), whose democratic ambitions displeased the Kremlin and who has been in jail since his show trial in Siberia.
Where he shouldn't actually be, because there is a law that prohibits prisoners from doing time more than 300 km away from their families. But the law is being broken. Chodorkovsky did what is taboo for oligarchs: he made public his fortune of billions and those of his top manager because American investors that were interested in Yukos were insisting on transparency. Thus he broke an unwritten law – and was dispensed with.

"Deported" to Siberia, like under Stalin. How do you explain the social regression in Russia?
Millions of people have gotten poorer since the fall of the Iron Curtain and at the same time, people miss a certain imperial megalomania that compensated, at least subjectively, for certain deficiencies in Soviet times. So the people – traumatised by a past that has not yet been worked through and poorly informed by a media that is anything but free – are looking for scapegoats. Nothing is easier than to convince them that the Caucasians, the Jews, the Asians are to blame. Even the Georgians can be put in this camp, as we saw last week, even though they used to be a favoured fraternal folk– that's where Stalin came from.

Putin condemns anti-Semitism...

... with words. You have to look at his deeds. Putin came to power in 1999 through the first Chechen war; since he's governed, there's been nothing but war there. By bringing electronic media under his control, he prevented the majority of the population from finding out what was actually going on there.

We often hear that Putin and his "hard hand" are very popular.
Kim Jong Il in North Korea is also very popular. It's easy to be popular as long as the population has no choice and gets to see almost nothing else. If he were really popular, he wouldn't need to control the media, but rather could participate in open discussions with his opponents, would recognise opposing candidates. But there's only Putin and Putin again and again. There is now much cynical speculation about who he will put in place as his successor. Not the voters, him. Our elections are a farce. The new parliament will be elected in a year, in 18 months the president. Before that, a signal must be sent to his potential opponents. This signal was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

What do you expect from Western politicians?
A clear message. Sometimes it seems almost schizophrenic in the West – that the press reports openly and explicitly on human rights violations, while the Russian politicians blandish everything, as though they never read the papers. Gerhard Schröder for example. Before being elected chancellor, he loudly condemned the intimate "Sauna politics" between Kohl and Yeltsin, only to call Putin a "flawless democrat" as chancellor and now to do business with him. I'm glad that Angela Merkel brought up the murder of at her meeting with Putin in Dresden and demanded an investigation.
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The interview originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on October 12, 2006.

Michail Ryklin, born 1948, is a highly acclaimed philosopher, writer and translator who lives in Moscow.

Translation: nb.

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Monday, October 16, 2006. Issue 3519. Page 3.

#3 Court Shuts Down Chechen Human Rights Organization

The Associated Press

The highest court in the Nizhny Novgorod region on Friday ordered the closure of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights group that has exposed abuses against civilians in Chechnya.

Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, director of the group, denounced the ruling as part of an effort to silence critics of the government's conduct in Chechnya.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Saturday that the court's decision was a "blatant attempt to silence a strong critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya."

"Russia's actions to quash the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society fly in the face of international standards protecting civil society," Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

"The Russian government has moved to systematically eviscerate all checks on its power and civil society is its latest target."

Other rights groups said the decision displayed the government's ability to use new legislation on extremism and nongovernmental organizations -- signed this year by President Vladimir Putin despite opposition at home and abroad -- to rein in civil rights.

Dmitriyevsky said the organization would appeal to the Supreme Court but that a reversal was unlikely. He called the ruling a politically motivated decision and part of "a campaign to prohibit people to talk about what is happening in Chechnya."

His NGO has campaigned against the conflict against separatists in Chechnya and published reports alleging torture, abductions and murder of civilians by federal forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies.