Archive: Acclaimed Reporter Killed in Russia

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A prominent Russian journalist known for reporting of human rights abuses in war-torn Chechnya was shot and killed Saturday in her apartment building in what colleagues and authorities described as an apparent assassination.

Anna Politkovskaya, 48, was shot in the chest as she was getting out of an elevator, then shot in the head, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing investigative sources. The image of the suspected killer was captured on a surveillance videotape, the agency said.

“We have a feeling, almost an assurance, that it is political murder,” said Vitaly Yaroshevsky, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where she worked. “It was certainly related to her professional activities.”

Politkovskaya, known to her friends as Anya, was one in a series of prominent officials and journalists to die violently in post-Soviet Russia, and her slaying sent a chill through Russia’s community of pro-democracy and human rights activists.

Last month, gunmen shot and killed a senior central banker, Andrei Kozlov, who had been involved in shutting down banks suspected of money laundering. American journalist Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was gunned down near his office in 2004.

Politkovskaya, a mother of two, was considered one of the toughest critics of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and of pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. One of her areas of expertise was documenting mistreatment of ordinary Chechens by Russian troops or forces loyal to Kadyrov.

Yaroshevsky said Politkovskaya had been working on an article about torture in Chechnya that was due to run in Monday’s paper.

“As far as I know she was planning to write about Kadyrov people who torture people in order to get confessions from them for anti-government activities,” Yaroshevsky said. “I don’t know whether she managed to complete her story. But if she did, or there are some drafts left, we will certainly publish it. We know that she had testimonies from those who were tortured, and photos of them.”

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who recently purchased a major interest in Novaya Gazeta, described Politkovskaya’s killing as “a savage crime against a professional and serious journalist and a courageous woman.”

“It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us,” Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax.

The killing of Politkovskaya led to speculation that it was ordered by someone loyal to Kadyrov or Putin who wanted to eliminate an influential critic. But Yaroshevsky said he didn’t think the Kremlin was involved.

“If we were to think that, it would mean that we live in a country of cannibals,” he said.

Gorbachev said he thought the killing was ordered by someone “who wants to cast a shadow both on the leadership of the country” and on the “positive” developments taking place in Chechnya, where separatist rebels appear to have been greatly weakened and Kadyrov has reimposed a semblance of order.

Politkovskaya had an exceptionally high international profile for a Russian journalist. She was frequently quoted as an analyst by Western media, and she received more than 10 awards and prizes in her career from groups such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In a 2002 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Politkovskaya chided the West for its faith in Putin.

“Today’s regime in Russia, as personified first and foremost by Putin, is interested only in power -- to keep it, consolidate and augment it, and do it in such a way that opponents would not even be able to raise their heads,” she wrote.

Politkovskaya was scheduled to be in Los Angeles to receive a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women in Media Foundation in Beverly Hills on Oct. 24, 2002, but instead returned to Moscow in an effort to help resolve the takeover of a theater by Chechen militants. She was one of the few people to enter the theater and attempt to negotiate with the hostage-holding rebels, but the effort failed and authorities eventually stormed the theater. At least 129 hostages and all the rebels died.

After another hostage crisis in 2004, the seizure of a school in Beslan, Politkovskaya became seriously ill on a flight to the region and was hospitalized.

She and her doctors suspected poisoning, but it was never proved.

“I always had a list of journalists whose lives I am scared for,” said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. “Anya was first on my list.”

Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow radio, one of the few broadcasting outlets still pursuing Western-style journalism in Russia, said that after word of Politkovskaya’s death spread, some of his friends urged him to start using bodyguards.

“I think that this murder may contain a signal for all of us, but this signal is secondary,” he said. “The first and primary target was Anna herself, as a journalist.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former Soviet-era dissident who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, said she was sure the attack on Politkovskaya was “a purely political murder.”

“As for me personally,” she said, “I am not scared because I will turn 80 next year, so what can I be scared of?”

Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.