Russia’s media massacre

By Tyler Wolfe

On Oct. 7, 2006 an unidentified man wearing a baseball cap entered the lobby of an apartment complex in central Moscow. It was President Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday and he was almost certainly aware of the day’s significance. The man was waiting for a woman, but he wasn’t looking for a date. When Anna Politkovskaya arrived home and headed for the elevator, the man did what he had come to do. As he left the building, Politkovskaya lay dead in a pool of her own blood– she had been shot four times including once point blank in the head.

The threat against journalists in Russia is very real. Equally real has been the unfortunate inability or unwillingness to bring the perpetrators to justice. A trial open to the public is essential for justice. More important than simply punishing the low-level thugs who carried out the assassination, an open trial is necessary to shed light on who ordered the hit. Politkovskaya’s voice was silenced very deliberately and is an unfortunate example of the lack of freedom of the press in Russia. This must change. Unfortunately, the military judge presiding over the trial into her murder seems to be doing his best to prevent this from happening.

Politkovskaya’s execution-style murder was just the most recent in a deluge of journalistic slayings across Russia. She was the 13th journalist to die during the reign of then-President Putin– that number has since risen to 16. Politkovskaya was the highest profile journalist murdered. A recipient of numerous international awards, including the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2001, she often found herself at odds with Putin’s policies, especially the war in Chechnya.

The indicted in the trial of her assassination include Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer and accused organizer of the assassination, and Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, both believed to be accomplices. The alleged triggerman, a third Makhmudov brother named Rustam remains at large, as does the unknown mastermind of the operation.

Judge Yevgeny Zubov made the much applauded decision to open the trial to the media Nov. 17. The trial had been criticized before it began for being held in a military court because of Khadzhikurbanov’s association with a former FSB (the predecessor to the KGB) colonel charged in an unrelated case, but it appeared there was reason for optimism. The decision to allow full access to the media was surprising and raised expectations that this case might be different, that perhaps justice would prevail.

The optimism lasted exactly two days. The judge, citing an ultimatum by the jury, barred the media Nov. 19. Supposedly, the jurors feared for their safety in the presence of the journalists and refused to partake in the proceedings until they were removed. The only problem with the judge’s claim is that the jurors deny it. In fact, 19 out of 20 of them have signed a statement refuting the claim. The judge then proceeded to adjourn the case for 10 days, citing a request by the defence as a result of a conflicting schedule. Again, however, the judge seems to be speaking for the other party. The defence team vehemently denies requesting the adjournment.

The trial has hardly begun and already its legitimacy is being called into question. The direction in which the Russian state has been heading lately has raised concern in the West. Both former President Putin and current (sort of) President Medvedev argue Russia’s foreign stance is not inherently aggressive and that their hand is being forced by aggressive posturing on the part of the West. To a large extent they are right, but it is time for Russia to stop using an external threat, perceived or otherwise, to cover up internal injustice. The trial of Politkovskaya’s executioners is imperative for justice to prevail in the battle for freedom of the press in Russia. The trial must be opened to the public.

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