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NGOs continue to seek justice for murdered Russian journalists

People hold portraits of murdered rights activist Natalya Estemirova during a rally in Moscow, 16 July, 2009.
People hold portraits of murdered rights activist Natalya Estemirova during a rally in Moscow, 16 July, 2009.

Associated Press/Sergey Ponomarev

At a gathering on 15 July in Paris, Reporters Without Borders paid tribute to Natalia Estemirova, a journalist and human rights activist who was murdered exactly four years earlier in Russia's North Caucasus. The NGOs that attended have decided to hold similar gatherings every year until her murder, and those of other Russian journalists, are solved.

The participants lit candles, laid roses and put up photos of six murdered journalists: Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev (Ахмеднаби Ахмеднабиев), who was gunned down last week in Dagestan, and five Novaya Gazeta journalists: Igor Domnikov (Игорь Домников, 2000), Yuri Shchekochikhin (Юрий Щекочихин, 2003), Anna Politkovskaya (Анна Политковская) (2006), Anastasia Baburova (Анастасия Бабурова, 2009) and Natalia Estemirova (Наталья Эстемирова, 2009).

“Estemirova's death had a dramatic impact in the Russian Caucasus,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Most NGOs left the region and the few journalists still daring to talk risk their lives to do so. Dozens had to emigrate.

“This region's population lives in fear of reporting the violence and abuses it has to endure, and those whose job is to report the violence no longer succeed in breaking the silence. The situation in this region is alarming, and journalists and human rights defenders can barely operate there.

“The judicial system has handled the cases of murdered journalists with excessive slowness. The only two that have resulted in convictions are those of Baburova and Domnikov. Uncertainty surrounds Shchekochikhin's death, with the judicial authorities insisting he died as a result of an allergy while his newspaper believes he was poisoned. It now seems impossible to get the case reopened because, after 10 years, the required analyses can not long be carried out.”

Deloire added: “The investigation into the murder of Estemirova, a symbol of the struggle against human rights violations, has reached a dead end. The Investigative Committee's spokesperson claims that they are still working on the case, but there is no sign of any results.”

Estemirova impasse

According to an independent investigation by the NGO Memorial and Novaya Gazeta into Estemirova's death, the main suspect, Alkhazur Bashayev, had nothing to do with her murder. Estemirova's former colleagues obtained DNA samples of his brother, who is based in France. They were compared with DNA traces left by the murderers and the results were given to the investigators. It is not yet known what conclusions they have drawn.

An Investigative Committee representative said on 15 July that investigations were still under way and that Russia was still awaiting a response from France to a request for judicial cooperation sent in 2010. According to Novaya Gazeta, France rejected this request in 2011.

Politkovskaya case relaunch?

A Moscow court could give the go-ahead on 23 July for the formation of a new jury to continue the trial of Politkovskaya's alleged killers. The previous attempt to form a jury, on 29 June, was a failure.

The defendants consist of the alleged hitman, Rustam Makhmudov, two of his brothers, his uncle and a former police officer. Three of the five were acquitted in an earlier trial in 2009 but the supreme court quashed their acquittal and ordered a new trial.

In December 2012, a retired Moscow police lieutenant-colonel, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in Politikovskaya's murder and has been in prison ever since.

Perfect scapegoat in Domnikov case

On 16 July 2013, Novaya Gazeta marked the 13th anniversary of the attack by a well-organized and dangerous criminal gang that killed Igor Domnikov. Sixteen members of this gang have been sentenced to long jail terms including life imprisonment, five of them for Domnikov's murder.

A businessman, Pavel Sopot, was provisionally detained in connection with the case in May of this year. Novaya Gazeta, which says Sopot just served as an intermediary, claims to have identified the person who asked for Domnikov to be murdered, a person in a high position, but the investigators have until now ignored its claims.

“Much remains to be done in the judicial investigation,” Novaya Gazeta spokesperson Nadezhda Prusenkova told Reporters Without Borders. “Aside from the criminal context, there is the political context. We hope that the Russian authorities will have the courage and the intelligence to solve this murder and jail the mastermind.”

Markelov-Baburova case still stalled

Human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta junior reporter Anastasia Baburova were gunned down on a Moscow street on 19 January 2009. Two ultra-nationalist activists, Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenya Khasis, were convicted of carrying out the murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment and 18 years in prison respectively.

In May of this year, investigators announced that two other ultra-nationalist activists have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder. They are Ilya Goryachev and Mikhail Volkov, who were arrested in Serbia and Ukraine respectively. A Belgrade court ordered Goryachev's extradition a month later but his lawyer has appealed.

According to a Reporters Without Borders tally, a total of 30 journalists have been murdered in connection with their work in Russia since 2000. Dozens of other journalists, as well as bloggers and other news and information providers, have been threatened, hounded, prosecuted or spied on. Internet use is closely monitored and new repressive laws restrict online access.

Reporters Without Borders recently launched a 2014 Sochi campaign to draw attention to the state of civil liberties in Russia. The Winter Olympics must not be used as a Potemkin façade to conceal the sad reality.

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