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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Sunday Times on the Putin Killings

The Sunday Times offers the following analysis of the Putin killings. Will Putin become the next Pinochet, ultimately hounded and arrested when his crimes are discovered, unable to travel outside Russia? Or will he consolidate his power and rule throughout his life, the way the old Soviets did?

LR notes that a huge number of her British readers have alerted her to the existence of this story by e-mail, indicating that the two reporters here, and express their admiration and praise, too often overlooked for journalists. As well, LR suggests you click through to the Times link for the story above, as the article has a forum attached where you can leave your comments on the pages of the mighty Times of London.

FOR one Russian journalist, a recent spate of murders and poisonings has become terrifyingly personal. Maria Ivanova is fleeing home this week for a new life abroad after being promised political asylum in America.

The award-winning journalist, an expert on the Caucasus region, had grown used to being followed and harassed, even beaten up on one occasion. But events took a sinister turn last October when an intruder broke into her flat while she was away.

She changed the locks, had a cup of coffee and went to bed. “I woke up in terrible pain early in the morning,” she said. “There was practically no skin left on my mouth, only bare flesh. The same thing happened to my fingers. My skin just started peeling off.” Her body swelled and she was rushed to hospital, where kidney failure was diagnosed.

A month later Ivanova was back in intensive care. She became ill and lost consciousness after drinking tea. This time, tests showed she was suffering from an inadequate supply of blood to the heart. “I have no doubt I was poisoned,” she said.

Ivanova is not the journalist’s real name. Until she leaves Russia she will not feel safe enough to be identified. “I live in fear,” she said in her first interview about her illness. “I feel trapped and constantly threatened by the security services.”

But the long reach of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has extended beyond Russia’s borders since parliament gave it a licence to kill abroad last year.

It is hard to tell which country is safe after former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium210 poisoning in London. In America Paul Joyal, an expert on Russian intelligence and critic of President Vladimir Putin, is critically ill after being shot outside his home in Washington. He may have been the victim of a mugging, but nobody knows for sure.

Some of Putin’s opponents intend to turn the tables on the Russian leader. Yuri Shvets, a former KGB major and friend of Litvinenko, believes Putin will be hounded abroad when his term expires in 2008, like the late Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, who was accused of human rights abuses.

“The biggest concern for Putin is what he is going to do after he retires and loses his immunity as head of state,” Shvets said at his home in Virginia. “He should be afraid of turning into another Pinochet. Putin likes to travel abroad and one day he may go downhill skiing in Europe and find himself behind bars.”

Barry Carter, professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, also said Putin had good cause to worry. “Heads of state are generally protected, but once he stands down, his legal status becomes very murky. If he travels, it will be at some risk.”

The deaths of Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was shot in the lift of her apartment building last October, could form the basis of a charge of conspiracy to murder.

So too could the case of Ivan Safronov, a 51-year-old defence reporter for the newspaper Kommersant, who fell to his death just over a week ago from the window of a fourth-floor stair-well in his apartment block. He was the 14th journalist to die in suspicious circumstances since Putin took office in 2000.

The Russian authorities called his death a suicide, but he lived on the second floor and had only just returned from shopping. He had also been due to become a grandfather. “Ivan and suicide are absolutely incompatible concepts,” said Veronika Kutsyllo, deputy editor of the paper.

Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who has called Putin a war criminal, has become used to death threats over the years. “I’m very watchful about security, but journalists are less well prepared to face some of the dangers,” he said.

Kalugin was rung by Joyal’s wife Elizabeth soon after he was shot in the groin. “She wanted to warn me that I might be next in line,” he said.

Days before the shooting, Joyal criticised Litvinenko’s murder on US television. Kalugin is keeping an open mind on the attack, but says Safronov’s case was “much more in line with what has been happening in Russia — the physical removal and assassination of critics”.

Safronov was looking into Russian plans to sell missiles and fighter jets to Iran and Syria when he died, while Ivanova has written extensively about the spread of Islamic militancy outside Chechnya, a highly sensitive topic. “Things have become so bad that I see no alternative but to leave Russia,” Ivanova said. “I am being pushed out of the country.”

There is no evidence that the campaign against her was orches-trated by the Kremlin, but the president has encouraged a crackdown on critics and allowed a culture of impunity to flourish. None of the killings has been solved.

Critics hope the threat to prosecute Putin in the West may restrain his regime. “The international outcry is unsettling Putin,” Shvets said. “He is concerned about the amount of immunity he will have. There is a lot of hard thinking going on in Russia about what kind of position he could hold in future.”

What degree of immunity from prosecution a former head of state has depends partly on his successors. “That’s why they worry so much about who is going to succeed them,” said Carter. “I’d advise Putin to get a nice governmental title and a good international lawyer.”

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