The politics of murder
31 Aug 2007

On Monday, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced the arrest of ten people suspected of involvement in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Those held include officials from the Russian Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Chaika said that the people ultimately behind the murder are living outside the Russian Federation, adding that the murder was committed with the intention of destabilising Russia and undermining public confidence in the authorities. The prosecutor general also suggested that the criminals responsible are seeking to re-impose the rule of the oligarchs in Russia.

As one of the journalists present at the press conference, I was struck by the ambivalence of the chief prosecutor’s statement. The editors of Novaya Gazeta are grateful to the investigators who have undertaken a massive task, examined all versions of events and taken account of every significant piece of information. Over a period of ten months they have drawn up a list of suspects that also includes members of the police force and the special services. In the conditions that prevail in Russia, this is a remarkable achievement.

A great deal remains to be done, however. The evidence has not been fully gathered or compiled, interviews have not been completed, connections have yet to be made – in other words, a successful outcome to the investigation remains a long way off.

That is why it is so troubling that the prosecutor general is summing up before a full indictment has been issued, and long before legal proceedings have been completed. What is more, he has repeated almost word for word a statement President Vladimir Putin made in the immediate aftermath of Politkovskaya’s murder, blaming forces outside Russia for attempting to undermine the current situation in the country. Either the Russian president is blessed with prophetic powers and can foresee the results of outstanding criminal cases, or the public prosecutor is making an effort to please Putin.

At the press conference, I asked Yuri Chaika if the coincidence embarrassed him, and if any political pressure had been exerted on the investigators from the Prosecutor General’s Office. Chaika appeared slightly offended, responded that nothing embarrassed him, and categorically rejected any possibility of political pressure.

It will be difficult for investigators to remain independent, however, when both the president and the chief prosecutor have publicly indicated where the orchestrators of the murder should be sought, and what their motives were. In Russia, an investigator does not have the authority to resist pressure. Recently publicised cases indicate that if an investigator does attempt to act independently, he is prevented from performing his professional duties, asked to resign, or prosecuted under criminal law.

Yuri Chaika’s declaration, that Politkovskaya’s murder was commissioned from the outside by forces intent on destabilising Russia, resembles the statement of a politician rather than a public prosecutor. It fails to stand up to criticism if only because the murder of a journalist could not destabilise the country. Over the past ten years, more than 200 journalists have been killed or have died in suspicious circumstances. The Russian public is neither surprised nor intimidated by the murders: people became inured to these things long ago.

Some of the figures who have died were very widely known. Vladislav Listyev, a television presenter loved by millions of viewers, was shot dead on 1 March 1995. The crime has not been solved. Dmitry Kholodov, a journalist for the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper (which has a print run of over two million), was killed by an explosive device in his office in 1994. The suspects have been fully acquitted. The chief editor of Forbes magazine, Paul Khlebnikov, was shot and killed on 9 July 2004. Once again, the suspects were subsequently acquitted in court (which only indicates the ‘quality’ of the evidence). These events failed to create any kind of stir in Russia. After three years, no one had associated the murder of the editor of Forbes with attempts to undermine state security.

Now the prosecutor general has linked the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Khlebnikov by saying that they were to the advantage of forces from abroad, and intended to destabilise Russia. His language is redolent of times when the internal problems of the Soviet Union were linked exclusively to the machinations of enemies outside the country. Furthermore the argument is weak. If we are to suppose even for a moment that forces outside Russia’s borders are in a position to hire officials from the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry to kill a journalist, then the leaders of the special services, the police force and the Prosecutor General’s Office should resign tomorrow.

Padraig Reidy

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