international, press freedom
Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya Murder Trial Closes Its Doors on Transparency

November 19, 2008 06:00 PM
by Christopher Coats
A Moscow court reversed an earlier ruling to open the trial for three men connected to the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

A Blow to Press Freedom, Some Say

Citing fears that the jury may come under public scrutiny and may be in danger because of the case’s extensive press coverage, the court ruled to expel all media from the courtroom and hold the trial in seclusion, though no “real threats” had been reported.

Relatives and colleagues of the slain reporter had hoped an open trial would provide public scrutiny to what they saw as an inherently flawed legal system.

“It’s a decision that denies society the ability to acquaint itself with the operations of the special service, the police, the Federal Security Service. It’s awful,” said Dmitry Muratov, Politkovskaya’s editor, according to the Associated Press.

One of a dozen reporters killed in contract-style attacks since 2000, Politkovskaya was finishing a report on human rights abuses in the separatist region of Chechnya in 2006 when she was shot twice in the elevator of her apartment building.

A staunch critic of Kremlin policy in the region, Politkovskaya reported on both Chechen wars in the late 1990s and became a leading advocate for families who had lost relatives in the violence, going so far as to act as a mediator during the September 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking.

Known at home and abroad as a sharp critic of Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya released a book in 2004 detailing what she saw as the then president’s efforts to curb freedoms and return to a more relegated Russia.

“Under President Putin we won’t be able to forge democracy in Russia and will only turn back to the past,” she told British paper The Independent following the release of her book, “Putin’s Russia.”She continued, “The Kremlin is turning the country back to its Soviet past.”

While those on trial have been charged with aiding Politkovskaya’s attacker, the alleged assailant, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former Moscow police officer, has fled the country since the attack, while the accused mastermind of the murder remains at large, according to the AP.

Khadzhikurbanov’s official connection to the state made it necessary to hold the trial in a military court.

Reaction: A step backward for Russian press freedom

The murder drew further attention to Russia’s worrying record of attacks on journalists, and what some see as a broader attempt on press freedoms.

Last year the U.S. State Department ranked Russia as the seventh worst country in the world for press freedom, citing routine physical attacks and the deaths of several journalists.

According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which provides legal support to the media in Russia, 220 journalists have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1991.

This court decision also marks the latest in a line of setbacks in the 2-year-old investigation, which has been marred by what critics have called foot-dragging, and the release without charge of 10 suspects arrested in August 2007, including a Chechen mafia boss and Russian law enforcement officers.

Reaction: Putin and Medvedev

Although the country’s new president Dmitry Medvedev has declared support for the investigation into Politkovskaya’s death and called to an end to what he has called the “legal nihilism” that has affected Russian courts for too long, critics have been frustrated with former President Vladimir Putin’s perceived attempts to shift the blame outside of the country.

Putin has called the murder an attempt to discredit Russia from outside the country, dismissing suggestions that there was any Kremlin connection by suggesting that “the investigation would lead to a mastermind abroad,” according to the AP.

Background: A history of mishandled trials

The Committee to Protect Journalism reported on the case of the murder of the American-born editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, whose assassination remains unsolved due to what his family saw as mishandling on the part of the court. 

Although, they did blame an “atmosphere of impunity that Putin has unleashed,” Klebnikov’s family placed the blame for the lack of prosecutions squarely on the court, the mishandling of the prosecution and treatment of the jury, who were not sequestered as the defense made threatening remarks toward them.

 Klebnikov was gunned down in July 2004, allegedly as retribution for his depiction of Chechen separatist leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev in a book the year before. No one was ever convicted for the murder.

Analysis: Not just era of Putin

Following the March 2007 death of Ivan Safronov, a defense reporter who died following a fall from his high-rise apartment building, Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, wrote in The Independent that although the era of Putin has been particularly hard for journalists, Russia’s poor treatment of the media predates his ascent to the presidency.

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