Just another two murders in Moscow?
23 Jan 2009

markelov_baburovaBill Bowring looks at the possible motives behind the murder of Anastasiya Baburova and Stanislav Markelov

Prechistenka is one of the most picturesque streets of the old centre of Moscow, lined with historical buildings, mansions and churches. On the afternoon of Monday 19 January 2009, it was the setting for a double murder which has caused unprecedented shock even in Russia, where assassinations have become commonplace. The victims were 34-year-old Stanislav Markelov, a leading human rights lawyer and director of the Institute of Supremacy of Law in Moscow; and his close comrade 25-year-old Anastasiya Baburova, who had in October 2008 started work as a researcher at the independent weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta (part-owned by Alexander Lebedev, who recently took over the London Evening Standard). They were both shot in the head by an assassin who used a silenced ‘Makarov’ revolver and wore a balaclava hat with slits for his eyes.

It will be recalled that Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in the lift of her apartment block on 7 October 2006, was the best-known journalist on Novaya Gazeta, exposing human rights violations in Chechnya. And her murder followed those of her colleagues on the paper, Igor Domnikov in 2000, and Yury Shchekochikhin in 2003.

Domnikov’s murderers were only convicted in 2007. Indeed, journalism is a high-risk profession in Russia. Between April 1993 and December 2008 up to 70 journalists were killed for their work or went missing; many more were the victims of work-related assaults. Many of the perpetrators have escaped justice, in a context of complete, or increasingly, partial impunity.

The profession of lawyer has not been so dangerous, but Markelov had a very high profile. He worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, for example on the ‘Cadet case’ in which the Chechen Zelimkhan Murdalov was tortured to death by special forces police. There is speculation that Markelov knew the name of Politkovskaya’s murderer.

Most strikingly, Markelov represented the family of the Chechen girl Elza (Kheda) Kungaeva, who in 2000 at the age of 18 was raped and murdered by Colonel Yury Budanov. At his first trial Budanov was acquitted on the basis of psychiatric evidence that he was temporarily insane at the time. But Markelov secured a forensic review from the London clinical psychologist Stuart Turner, who in a report which Anna Politkovskaya published in Novaya Gazeta on 23 January 2003, advised that Budanov was ‘healthy, and dangerous’. This helped to secure Budanov’s conviction and sentence to ten years in prison at a re-trial. But, on 14 January, 2009 Budanov was released on parole. Shortly before his murder, Markelov had conducted a news conference protesting at this decision, and demanding that the authorities resume the prosecution.

Despite taking cases for Chechens who suffered at the hands of the authorities, Markelov was a hero in Chechnya. On 20 January 2009, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov awarded Markelov a posthumous medal ‘for services to the Chechen Republic’, and tens of thousands demonstrated in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Yet there have been a number of recent murders connected with Chechnya. On 15 January 2009, Umar Ismailov, a 27-year-old Chechen exile and fierce critic of Ramzan Kadyrov was shot dead in Vienna, using very similar methods.

Furthermore, Markelov and Baburova were both left-wing and anti-fascist activists. He had defended the anti-fascist group Anti-Fa, and she had been hired by the paper to write about neo-Nazis, and quoted Markelov in her articles. In April 2004, he was attacked in the Moscow Metro by five skinheads, who beat him up, shouting nationalist slogans, and denouncing his work against Budanov. Anti-fascist activity too has become very dangerous. In October 2008, neo-fascist skinheads kicked 16-year-old Olga Rukosyla to death in Irkutsk and stabbed 27-year-old Fyodor Filatov to death in Moscow. In January 2009, the young leftist Anton Stradimov was beaten to death in Moscow. Racist violence is monitored by the excellent Sova Centre, which publishes regular updates on its website in Russian and English.

Speculation as to the identity of the murderer is rife. Police have already described the murders as a ‘contract killing’. Yet, as several commentators insist, it seems highly unlikely that Budanov or those close to him are involved. Moreover, this was probably not a neo-fascist or skinhead killing, since their victims are usually beaten or stabbed to death.

The daily Izvestia offers another possible explanation. The killer carried out his assassination on a busy street in broad daylight. He did not drop his gun, but calmly walked into a nearby Metro station. And the ‘Makarov’ pistol is standard police issue. Was he a police officer? The police could have had a grudge against Markelov. In April 2008 there was a brawl in Sokolniki police station in Moscow. Five youths were beaten up, but were charged with assaulting police officers. One of the youths was represented by Markelov, who succeeded in having charges pressed against police. On the day of the murder, the case was at its peak.

The General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, Yury Chaika, and the Head of the Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, have promised that the murder investigation will be lead by them personally.

While a final judgment would be premature, we are entitled to ask whether this will be yet another example of impunity for those responsible. In any event, ultimate responsibility for the state of affairs in which murder and intimidation are so horrifyingly commonplace must be laid on those in political power in Russia.

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