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14 October 2008

The killing of Anna Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya was relentless in her efforts to shine the spotlight of world attention on the sufferi

By Sara Hall

The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October 2006 has been remembered all over the world during the last week. Amnesty International believes that Politkovskaya was killed because of her work as a journalist. The trial of three men accused of her murder is set to start on 15 October in a Moscow military court.

Politkovskaya was relentless in her efforts to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of the people in Chechnya. Her reports were crucial in bringing about the first ever prosecution against a Russian police officer, guilty of serious human rights violations. While working in the area she was put in a pit in the ground by Russian forces and subjected to abuse and humiliation.

She was included in the Top 50 Heroes of our time compiled by the New Statesman in May 2006.

Her books, which have been translated into English, highlight atrocities in Chechnya, criticise Vladimir Putin’s presidency and the general stifling of civil liberties by Russia’s secret service, the Federal Security Service (FSB). She frequently spoke about theses issues to audiences worldwide.

Sue Bingham, a human rights activist from Reading, remembers meeting the journalist at a conference on Chechnya organised by her llocal Amnesty group five years ago. She says: “Anna Politkovskaya impressed me immediately. She was such a dignified woman and very passionate about human rights. No one who met her could ever forget her.”

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Sue was so upset when she heard the news about her murder that she set about collecting hundreds of tributes from people all over the UK and made a book of remembrance of Politkovskaya, which she gave to the journalist’s sister, Elena Kudimova, in a meeting in London last year.

Last week, at the second anniversary of Anna’s death, Sue and Amnesty student activists planted a rose in Anna’s memory in the garden of Henley College where Sue works as a French teacher.

Other people have been honouring Politkovskaya’s memory and highlighting the immensely difficult situation of journalists and human rights defenders in Russia.

The Lord mayor of Sheffield together with the local Amnesty group planted a tree to commemorate Politkovskaya and Amnesty activists in France cordoned off sections of a pavement to simulate a murder scene under the slogan: “Russia: Freedom assassinated.”

In Italy, members of the group ANNAVIVA, which was founded as a direct response to the assassination of Politkovskaya two years ago, held vigils in Milan and Rome.

In August 2007 the Russian authorities announced that some 12 people were detained in connection with the murder. Several of these were released when it transpired that they had an alibi. A lawyer for three of the detained claimed that his clients had been ill-treated.

In June this year the office of the General Prosecutor announced that it had completed its investigation. Hence the three people now facing trial for her murder albeit in proceedings that may be closed to the public.

Matteo Cazulanni from Annaviva says: “I’m sceptical that justice will be done in this murder trial. The case has been passed from a civil to a military court. This shows that the authorities want to control the judicial process.” Dmitrii Kokorev, a Russian blogger agrees: “I don’t think there will be a fair trial under the current government.”

Kokorev, who has exchanged Moscow and his life as an online journalist for environmental campaigning in Russia’s villages, says: “Nothing has changed since Anna Politkovskaya was murdered two years ago. There are hardly any independent media outlets. Professional journalists try to move into blogging and other areas. Some wait for better times and some leave the country.”

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International in the UK, says: “The space for freedom of speech is shrinking alarmingly in Russia. Dissent of almost any kind is more and more difficult – and it’s literally been a matter of life and death in the case of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya.”

Sue Bingham believes that the actions around the world in the memory of Politkovskaya are very important: “We need to keep her voice alive but we also need to highlight the extremely difficult situation of others like her in Russia. As an Amnesty member in the UK I am free to stand up for journalists and human rights defenders who face threats. The least I can do is to keep the pressure on the Russian authorities to reverse some of the damage to human rights in recent years.”

Sara Hall, Amnesty International country coordinator on Russia