international, press freedom
Anna Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya Acquittal Raises Fears of Lost Russian Courts and Press Freedoms

February 20, 2009 07:33 AM
by Christopher Coats
A three-month trial of three men accused of aiding in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya ended in acquittal after a series of high-profile embarrassments.

A Blow to Press Freedom, Some Say

Controversial because of the lack of an accused gunman, allegations of government mishandling of the case and efforts to hide the trial from public view, the prosecution of the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya has led some to suggest it represents a systematic breakdown of the Russian judicial system.

The Politkovskaya case joins several other high profile murders of government critics that remain unsolved and unresolved.

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.

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.

She was known at home and abroad as a sharp critic of then-President Vladimir Putin, and released a book in 2004 detailing what she saw as his 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.

Background: 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.

In 2007, 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.

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.

Reaction: Putin and Medvedev

Although Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, has declared support for the investigation into Politkovskaya’s death and called for an end to what he has termed 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.

Related Topic: A history of mishandled trials

This controversial trial marked a final setback in the 2-year-old investigation into Politkovskaya’s murder, 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.

It’s hardly the first time Russian officials have been accused of botching the case of a murdered journalist. 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.

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