The murder of Anastasiya Baburova (right) and Stanislav Markelov is part of a brutal trend. Russians who stand up for human rights may pay with their lives, says Tanya Lokshina
It was an exceptionally fine day on 19 January. Sun, a rare guest in the Moscow winter, made a sudden appearance in the early afternoon, and the fresh white snow was positively dazzling. I was struggling with yet another round of edits to a report when the phone rang. It was a friend of mine asking if I had a mobile number for Stas Markelov, a hot-shot young human rights lawyer whom I knew quite well. Having thanked me for the number, my interlocutor rushed to explain, ‘I read it on the web that Stas just got killed somewhere in the center of Moscow but this is bullshit. It just can’t be right!’
I actually laughed, ‘Stas killed? Get out of here! I’ll call him right away to inform him that he’s effectively dead. No worries.’ When pushing the buttons on my phone I automatically recalled a God awful scare a couple of weeks earlier, when news agencies reported the alleged killing of Victor Shenderovich, an immensely talented and funny independent journalist. His family and friends almost had a heart-attack before Shenderovich managed to reassure them that the whole thing was nothing but a provocation. So, here is another one… Come on, Stas, pick up the bloody phone… But the long beeps went on interminably.
Markelov was shot dead around three in the afternoon on Prechistenka Street in the heart of Moscow. Prechistinka is always lively, with heavy traffic and pedestrians rushing about. The killing was witnessed by many and even recorded on one of those surveillance video-cameras, which are common in central Moscow. Markelov was walking towards the metro from his own press conference where he had spoken about the terrible case of Yuri Budanov, a Russian military officer who had brutally killed a young Chechen woman, Elza (Kheda) Kungaeva back in 2000. Markelov represented Kungaeva’s family in court and it is largely owing to his efforts that Budanov was finally given a ten-year prison term in 2003. At that time, with thousands of the dead and disappeared and absolute impunity for perpetrators in Chechnya, this seemed like a miracle. On 15 January 2009, however, Badanov was released on parole. Markelov believed the granting of parole to be unlawful and promised to take the matter all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
Walking alongside Markelov was Anastaysia (Nastya) Baburova, an intern for Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading independent paper, whose star correspondent and human rights champion, Anna Politkovskaya, died in a contract killing in October 2006. Markelov worked to seek justice for some of the most blatant cases of abuses in Chechnya that Politkovskaya wrote about. After Anna’s murder he continued cooperating with Novaya Gazeta. When the gun-shot resounded and Stas fell to the ground, his head bleeding, Nastya saw the hitman and ran after him. Maybe she thought she could stop him. Or, even more likely, she did not think but did it impulsively, not able to bear the very idea of his escaping justice. The killer raised his gun again and shot her in the head. Several hours later, Nastya died in the hospital.
On 20 January, at noon, around 300 people, crushed by shock and sadness, came to Prechistenka St to lay flowers at the site of the killing. Next to the heap of carnations and roses there were lit candles, hand-made posters, and portraits of Stas and Nastya. On those photos they looked so young — But then Nastya was only 25 and Stas 34. He had two children, the youngest still a baby.
For victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya, Markelov’s name was synonymous with hope for justice. Markelov fought in court against numerous perpetrators in human rights abuses in Chechnya, not only Budanov. Among his clients was the Murdalov family, whose son was tortured and forcibly disappeared by Russian police in 2001 — another case made famous by Politkovskaya. Markelov also represented Mokhmadsalakh Masaev, a Chechen who said he was held in a secret prison in Tsenteroi, the native village of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, for more than four months in 2006-2007 and subjected to inhuman treatment. Masaev was abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on 3 August 2008, several weeks after Novaya Gazeta published an interview in which he accused Kadyrov of running illegal prisons in Chechnya.
Several critics of the authorities in Russia, particularly those who sought justice for torture, abductions and extrajudicial executions in the North Caucasus, have lost their lives in the past six months. On 13 January, Umar Israilov, a Chechen who had filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging that he had been tortured by Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna Magomed Yevloyev, the owner of Ingushetiya.Ru website, which reported on human rights abuses during counterterrorist operations in Ingushetia, a republic in the North Caucasus which borders Chechnya, was killed in a police car on 31 August, 2008, after he was taken in for questioning by police at Magas airport in Ingushetia. But Markelov’s killing truly evokes the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. The message these killers are sending clearly is, if you try to hold abusers to account you risk your life.
Like in the old nursery rhyme about ‘ten little Indians,’ the most vocal critics of the Russian government are disappearing one after the other. And unless Russia’s international partners open their eyes to the situation and push Moscow to ensure the security of people like Markelov, who are fighting for justice in Russia, soon ‘there shall be none’.
Tanya Lokshina is a Russia Researcher for Human Rights Watch in Moscow