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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Anna's Last Words

The New York Times reports on Anna Politkovskaya's last words to the world:

The newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Thursday published the last article by its slain special correspondent, Anna Politkovskaya, along with transcripts of videotaped torture sessions of Chechens that she had obtained in her work.

The article, an unfinished column that presented new allegations of torture by security forces in Chechnya, appeared on the same day that the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling holding Russia responsible for the killings of five Chechen civilians in early 2000 by Russian police officers. The victims of that incident included a 1-year-old boy and his young mother, who was eight months pregnant. All of the victims were shot, and the mother’s jewelry was stolen, the court said.

The article also appeared as the federal prosecutor’s office in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, said it was checking into reports of the disappearance of another prominent Chechen: the mother of the last wife of Shamil Basayev, the terrorist leader who died in an explosion in June. The woman, Rita Ersenoyeva, has been missing since Oct. 2, human rights workers say, and had spent the last several weeks searching for her daughter, who had been kidnapped as well after what her mother had described as a forced marriage to the terrorist leader.

Ms. Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s best-known journalists and human rights advocates, was fatally shot on Saturday, apparently the victim of a contract killing. The events on Thursday together served as a sort of coda on her life, reminders of the lingering chaos and human costs of the war in Chechnya, which Russia insists has been won.

Ms. Politkovskaya, 48, was a leader among the shrinking group of Russian journalists who dared to keep challenging that thinking, by writing frankly about the violence and disorder in the republic. Chechnya, her work said, remains a place where open fighting has slowed but murky police and military operations continue, and chilling behavior by Russian forces and the Kremlin’s proxies is a dark norm.

Her final article, a column under the headline “We Declare You a Terrorist,” presented allegations of the use of torture to exact confessions and manufacture good news from the war.

“When prosecutors and the courts work, not for the sake of the law, but on political commission and with the only goal of providing good reports for the Kremlin, then criminal cases are baked like pancakes,” she wrote. “An assembly line producing ‘open-hearted confessions’ effectively guarantees good data on the war on terror.”

She asked: “Are we, the lawful, fighting against the unlawful? Or are we battling ‘their’ lawlessness with ‘ours?’ ”

The article described the case of Beslan Gadayev, a Chechen migrant deported from Ukraine to Chechnya, where he claimed in a letter to Ms. Politkovskaya that he had been asked if he committed certain unsolved murders.

When he said he had not, he wrote, he was punched near an eye, beaten, tied up, handcuffed, hung from a pipe and then connected to electric cable, whose current was switched on. In time, he said, he confessed and the next day he was told to confess again in front of journalists and to say that his injuries were a result of an escape attempt.

The article was accompanied by images from videos that Ms. Politkovskaya had obtained of an armed Chechen, who her newspaper said was presumably a member of the Chechen armed forces, torturing at least one man.

Not long after the newspaper was published Thursday morning, the European Court of Human Rights released a unanimous decision blaming Russia for deaths of five members of the Estamirov family in Grozny in early 2000, a period when Russian forces had just wrested control of the capital from separatists.

It also found that Russia had failed to adequately investigate the killings, which were part of a sweep operation that Human Rights Watch, the American-based organization, investigated and called a massacre.

At least 60 civilians were killed, shot at close range, human rights workers said, apparently by enraged police units from St. Petersburg and Ryazan who were looting the neighborhood. Nobody has ever been charged for the crimes. The court on Thursday ordered Russia to pay about 230,000 euros, or about $290,000, in damages to the victims’ relatives.

Ole Solvang, executive director of the Stitching Russian Justice Initiative, a private organization that has helped survivors of the Chechen war seek justice in the European Court, said the evidence showed that the deaths were deliberate. For example, he said, the slain 1-year-old boy, Khasan Estamirov, was shot multiple times at close range. At least one shot was to the head.

“They just went completely nuts that day,” Mr. Solvang said. “It was horrible.”

Russia, which earlier this year also was found responsible by the court for the summary execution of a young Ingush fighter at about the same time, made no comment on the case. It has three months to appeal.

Later in the day, Valery Kuznetsov, the top federal prosecutor in Chechnya, said by telephone that his office was looking into reports that Rita Ersenoyeva had been abducted.

Kidnappings, both to gain ransom and to kill suspected rebels and their supporters, have been a part of life in Chechnya for more than a decade. Human rights groups say Russian forces or Chechens loyal to the Kremlin premier are often responsible.

Ms. Ersenoyeva disappeared on Oct. 2 after being summoned by telephone to an administration building in the village of Stariye Atagi, according to Tanya Lokshina, chairwoman of Center Demos, a human rights group. Neither Ms. Lokshina nor Mr. Kuznetsov said they had found witnesses to the abduction.

But Ms. Ersenoyeva has not been heard from since she left for the meeting, Ms. Lokshina said, adding that Ms. Ersenoyeva left eagerly after a caller told her that there was good news about her daughter, who in August had vanished as well after gunmen seized her from the street.

Meanwhile, the Moscow News reports that the Kremlin's crackdown on opposition and information continues apace, with an attack on a Chechen rights group in the major city of Nizhny Novgorod:

A court in Nizhny Novgorod ordered a closure of a Chechen rights group that has regularly exposed abuses against civilians in violence-torn Chechnya, the Gazeta.Ru news website reported Friday. Co-founder of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, said he was going to appeal the ruling.

Earlier this week the Nizhny Novgorod regional prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press that a court in the central Russian city was to examine prosecutors’ request to shut down the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society on Thursday.

“The government cannot accept any criticism of its conduct in Chechnya,” said the group’s leader, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, who linked the threatened closure to the weekend murder of a prominent Russian investigative journalist who was also a fierce critic of the Kremlin over Chechnya.

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an apparent contract killing in her Moscow apartment building on Saturday. Her colleagues linked the murder to her work exposing rights abuses in the troubled southern region; it came as the journalist was about to publish an article about torture and kidnappings in Chechnya based on witness accounts and photos of tortured bodies.

“Whoever ordered it, it’s absolutely clear that the authorities either were directly behind it or at the very least created the conditions that allowed it to happen,” said Dmitriyevsky, who was one of thousands of mourners who attended Politkovskaya’s funeral on Tuesday.

His non-governmental organization, which successfully fought off an attempt to close it last year, has faced increased official pressure in recent months. In February, a court handed Dmitriyevsky a two-year suspended sentence after finding him guilty of inciting ethnic hatred.

The rights group has vigorously campaigned against the more than decade-old conflict against separatists in Chechnya and published reports alleging torture, abductions and murder of civilians by Russian forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies.

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society said in a statement that prosecutors justified the demand for its closure under a new law that made it illegal for an NGO to be headed by a person with a criminal record.

The restrictive law, which came into effect early this year, imposed government oversight of NGO work and financing, giving the authorities scope to close down groups whose activities are perceived to contradict their stated goals or harm state interests.

The law provoked a tide of criticism from Western governments amid concerns that it could herald a tightening state control over non-governmental organizations. President Vladimir Putin has been accused of stifling media freedoms and rolling back post-Soviet democratic freedoms since coming to power in 2000.

“This marks the start of a general campaign against NGOs which are involved in monitoring Chechnya,” warned Oleg Orlov from Memorial, the leading Russian human rights body, of the move against the Nizhny Novgorod group. “We expect to be next.”

Here is the eulogy for Anna given by Irene Khan, Amnesty International's Secretary General (if you want to start working against dictatorship in Russia in honor of Anna's memory, Amnesty is a good place to start):

I am shocked, saddened and outraged at the murder of Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya. On behalf of Amnesty International and myself, I extend my deepest sympathy to her family, friends and colleagues. Russia has lost a deeply dedicated human rights defender, who spoke out fearlessly against violence and campaigned tirelessly to see justice done. We in Amnesty International have lost a good friend and supporter.

Anna Politkovskaya's bravery and integrity in covering human rights abuses across Russia in the face of threats and intimidation is well known. She was fearless in speaking the truth, in exposing atrocities and in her support for ordinary people in Chechnya -- and for that she has paid the ultimate price. All those who believe in human rights, who worked with her, who were inspired by her and who received her support in their struggle for justice have lost a courageous and compassionate friend.

Amnesty International was founded in order to support those whose rights were abused and who were forgotten by many. Anna Stepanovna was one of those persons who did not forget. She was relentless in her efforts to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of the people in Chechnya. Her reporting was crucial in bringing about the first prosecution ever against a Russian police officer, guilty of serious human rights violations in Chechnya. She herself was put in a pit in the ground in Chechnya by Russian forces and subjected to abuse and humiliation. But nothing could stop her from speaking out against human rights abuses wherever she saw them, no matter who committed them, Russian or Chechen. She was very critical about the silence of other governments in the face of serious human rights problems in the Russian Federation. She spoke to different audiences in Europe and the USA, reminding them of their - of our - responsibility towards the victims of human rights violations in Russia. In 2001 Amnesty International UK honoured her with the Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. It was just one of many recognitions that she received for her extraordinary work.

Amnesty International believes that Anna Politkovskaya was targeted because of her work as a fearless journalist and human rights defender. We have called on the Russian authorities to investigate this appalling crime promptly, thoroughly and impartially, to make the findings public and to bring the suspected perpetrators to justice.

Anna Politkovskaya’s death is a serious blow for freedom of expression in Russia. Her murder sends a chilling message about the dangers that face all those in Russia who dare to speak out as she did. It makes it all the more imperative for all of us to press the Russian authorities to recognise the legitimate and important role of civil society, and in particular human rights defenders and independent journalists in Russia, and to insist that they are protected from harassment, intimidation and threats. Such attacks are unacceptable and must stop.

As we mourn the loss of Anna Politkovskaya, we in Amnesty International are more determined than ever before to continue our work to help protect human rights defenders, journalists and all those who expose and campaign against human rights atrocities, injustice and impunity in Russia.

Read the full article by Anna in translation here.

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