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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Now, with Politkovskaya's Blood in the Water, the Feeding Frenzy Begins


The Washington Post reports on how Russia has become unhinged with bloodthirsty violence in the wake of the cowardly murder of Politkovskaya. Russians imagine themselves brave and heroic, yet they fear a lone woman with a pencil.

Internet postings are calling on Russian nationalists to kill government critics, death lists that underscore the dangers journalists and rights activists face in Russia.

Svetlana Gannushkina, a refugee rights activist, tops a list of 89 people published by a radical nationalist group, the Russian Will, which has urged "patriots" to take up arms and execute her and other friends of "alien" peoples.

"Since there is nothing I can do in this situation, I try not think about it," the soft-spoken, 64-year-old Gannushkina said.

Slain investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was on such a list, for her reporting on Chechnya and criticism of the Kremlin. Her slaying Saturday has cast a chill over human rights activists and journalists who criticize government policies and increasingly fear for their safety in a repressive climate.

Since President Vladimir Putin came to power nearly seven years ago, he has moved to silence critics, squeezing the opposition and tightening the screws on media critical of the Kremlin. He came under strong Western condemnation for a new law that severely limits the activities of non-governmental organizations.

Prosecutors have linked Politkovskaya's slaying to her award-winning reports, fearlessly uncovering human rights abuses by government troops in war-ravaged Chechnya. She had been listed as one of 63 "non-friends of Russia" by the nationalist group National Sovereign Party of Russia.

Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whose forces were accused of torture, abductions and murder by Politkovskaya, denied any role in her murder Wednesday.

Some colleagues have suggested Politkovskaya could have died at the hands of Russian nationalists at a time when xenophobia is growing and hate crimes take place almost daily. Rights activists complain the government is doing little to combat the alarming trend.

"I am horrified at what happened with Anya," said Gannushkina, using Politkovskaya's nickname. "Of course, I understand that considering what happened, we are all under the same threat."

Gannushkina said she first learned in August of the Web site calling for her to be killed as an "advocate of alien migrants." Other alleged enemies included journalist and commentator Yevgeniya Albats and veteran rights activist Sergei Kovalyov.

The site, http://www.russianwill.org , could not be accessed Wednesday. Gannushkina said it was shut down this week.

However, information on the targeted activists and journalists, including their phone numbers and addresses, has spread to numerous other nationalist sites and blogs and Gannushkina has received phone threats.

Gannushkina said she asked prosecutors to investigate the group's activities in August, but prosecutors have failed to launch a probe. A spokesman for the Moscow Prosecutor's Office declined comment.

Last year, Oksana Chelysheva, an activist and journalist with the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which advocates for Chechen rights, discovered leaflets stuffed in mailboxes in her apartment building proclaiming her "a whore for the Chechens," giving her full name and address and accusing her of supporting terrorists.

Chelysheva has kept up her work despite the threats. Her boss, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, was convicted in February of inciting ethnic hatred and handed a two-year suspended sentence _ a verdict he condemned as part of a state assault on non-governmental organizations. This week, prosecutors asked a court to shut down the group.

Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, condemned the intimidation campaign against Gannushkina and her colleagues. He urged authorities to use the recently passed law on extremism to crack down on radical groups instead of targeting groups promoting ethnic tolerance.

"The climate is starting to resemble a fascist society where there is freedom to make money by friends of the rulers but critics and independent thinking are persecuted," Rhodes said.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said Russian journalists, along with rights activists, face many threats.

"When a journalist is threatened, he is threatened either with courts or with death -- either we will kill you or we will throw you in prison," Panfilov said.

He declined to estimate how many journalists have been threatened, saying most threats are delivered by phone or in person, making them hard to document. But he said more than 40 journalists have been attacked in connection with their work this year alone.

Russia has become one of the deadliest countries for journalists. Forty-three journalists were killed between 1993 and 2005, many in Chechnya, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Gannushkina said she would continue her advocacy work despite the intimidation, rejecting her colleagues' advice to hire a bodyguard, because she did not want to put anyone in danger.

"If I intend to live here, I intend to live and not hide in a burrow," she said.

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