Thursday, February 5, 2009

Just a few miles from the Kremlin, in Moscow’s busy downtown district, a man followed human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and youthful journalist Anastasia Baburova after a midday press conference. The stalker approached the activists, pulled on a ski mask, and then brazenly pumped two bullets with a silenced pistol in the back of the head of Mr. Markelov, 34, killing him instantly. Miss Baburova, 25, tried to detain the gunman and was also shot, dying in a hospital several hours later. The gunman swiftly disappeared into the teeming city.

As Mr. Markelov’s body lay in a pool of blood on a sidewalk, Russian democracy bled along with him. Is this now just another day in modern-day Russia? Has the nation ceased to be based on the rule of law?

Certainly many Russians think so - and are beginning to react to the Jan. 19 killing of two more martyrs to the cause of freedom and human rights. Many began to protest. “No more political killings,” they chanted on Feb. 1st in Moscow, amidst other outcries against the growing economic crisis. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have much to answer for.

Miss Baburova is among four journalists from Russia’s leading investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta (or “New Newspaper”) that have been killed in the past eight years. Since 2000, 16 journalists have died in Russia under suspicious circumstances - and scores of others have been threatened, intimidated and assaulted.

Mr. Markelov was a well-known proponent of the rights of the victims of war crimes in the bloody War of the North Caucasus (1999-2004) in which Russia regained control of the separatist region Chechnya. The lawyer had been advocating for the continued detention of Russian Colonel Yuri Budanov, who was convicted in 2003 of killing an 18-year-old Chechen woman, was sentenced to 10 years and had been granted an early release. Mr. Markelov had also represented Anna Politkovskaya, another Novaya Gazeta journalist whose October 2006 death sparked an international uproar and whose case still remains unresolved - as most deem the current trail of the alleged culprits to be merely window-dressing that does not uncover the individual who ordered the hit.

Whether one is a dissident, a human rights advocate, a journalist or a lawyer, it is no longer safe to do one’s job if information uncovered criticizes leading authority figures. The high hopes after the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia could become a full-fledged democracy are fading. In December, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that Russian suppression of the media and of dissidents was part of “clearly authoritarian trends.”

What can Americans do to keep the flickering light of freedom alive in Russia? According to Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is imperative for fellow journalists to report fully on all these crimes: “Western journalists must cover these stories more extensively than they have; Russian journalists need to feel the solidarity and support of their international journalist community,” she said.

Transparency places more pressure on the Russian government to pursue wrongdoers; also, American journalists need to stand in greater solidarity with the families of the victims of these brutal slayings. In Russia, their suffering is quickly forgotten. She urges President Barack Obama to place human rights abuses in Russia at the top of his agenda - especially since American citizens such as Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was gunned down in 2004, and Mrs. Politkovskaya (she had dual citizenship) were also victims. “We need to help the voiceless regain a voice,” she said.

A practical approach to moving the ball forward is simply to demand greater access to the North Caucuses, which Mrs. Ognianova aptly describes as “a black hole for information since 1999.” Many of the crimes committed have been waged against those investigating the Second Chechen War. Journalists who attempt to uncover information are obstructed by local authorities - who are under orders by the Kremlin to restrict access.

Both Russian and international journalists need to be given access to report freely in the zone. Russian leaders have said that journalists need military escorts for protection from rebels and separatists, but harassment comes mostly from Russian troops and local authorities, rather than armed rebels. New York Director Tala Dowlatshahi of Reporters Without Borders says that many of the independent investigations underway into these crimes point to Mr. Putin as “a human rights abuser.” He is considered by the watchdog organization as one of the “predators of press freedoms” - in sharp contrast to the nation’s stated democratic principles.

The list of victims in this gangster state abounds. To prevent similar outrages, and to improve Russia’s transparency and thus its international standing, the world community must be relentless in spotlighting abuses and crying: “No more!” Don’t let the lights go out in Russia once again.

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