Grigory Tambulov/AP
Stanislav Markelov

Contract-Style Killing of Russian Lawyer a Blow to Free Speech

January 22, 2009 10:28 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A lawyer and journalist who publicly opposed the early prison release of Yuri Budanov were killed in Moscow this week, furthering concern over human rights in Russia.

Killings Shock Moscow

Human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov had just left a news conference where he protested the early prison release of former high-ranking Russian military officer Yuri Budanov, when he was shot in the head by a masked gunman and died on the street. Student journalist Anastasia Baburova, who had been reporting for liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was also killed, reports The Washington Post.

Budanov was convicted in 2003 of charges involving the murder of 18-year-old Chechen woman Elza Kungayeva. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after admitting to strangling Kungayeva because he believed she was an enemy sniper.

For Chechens, the case serves as an important symbol of human rights. When Budanov was released on parole 15 months earlier than schedule on Jan. 15, protests broke out in Chechnya, and human rights groups fumed, reported The New York Times.

According to The Washington Post, “Markelov had given a series of interviews in recent days challenging a court’s decision” to grant Budanov parole. Markelov was well known for his representation of “labor unions, environmental groups and journalists,” as well as his devotion to victims of atrocities committed by “Russian security forces during the Chechen war.”

Responding to the murders, Lyudmilla Alexeyeva of the established Russian human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group, told The Washington Post, “Not a single person can feel safe here!”

Background: Budanov case

The New York Times provides extensive background information on Russian army Col. Yuri D. Budanov’s case. According to the March 2001 article, “none of the events” of Budanov’s vicious attack were “in dispute,” but Russian citizens and military personnel debated whether Budanov’s actions were “worth punishing.”

Budanov has been portrayed as “a war hero,” and the victim of a Western plot to disparage the Russian military, according to The Daily Telegraph. Many Russians “have long viewed Chechens as sub-human,” causing some to justify Budanov’s horrific crimes.

Related Topic: Response in EU and Chechnya

The Czech Republic, current EU president, released a statement regarding the deaths, calling on Russia "to investigate Markelov’s murder, as well as previous attacks on human rights activists, journalists and members of non-governmental organizations, and to bring those guilty to justice,” reported RIA Novosti.

EU officials also compared the situation to the shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, who, like Baburova, worked as a reporter for Novaya Gazeta.

Isa Khadzhimuradov, regional leader of the Just Russia Party, called Markelov’s death “a major loss for both Russia and civil society.” He joined thousands of people, including “Political parties, human rights groups and government officials” at a rally in Chechen capital Grozny to protest the murders, reported The Boston Globe.

Opinion & Analysis: Journalism in Russia

On the Global Comment blog, Natalia Antonova discussed comments left on Baburova’s Live Journal (now closed), some of which asserted that she should have avoided contact with Markelov, and stuck to less controversial subject matter. Antonova writes, “Young women and men in the former Soviet Union are encouraged not to be too clever nowadays—if you want to write, stick to writing for the tabloids. Anything more profound can get you killed.”

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