It's Vladimir Putin's birthday today. But as some Russians celebrate their leader's 62nd year on earth, others in the country remember a much more somber occurrence: the murder, eight years ago, of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a staunch critic of the president and of his war in Chechnya.
Politkovskaya, an investigative reporter with Novaya Gazeta, one of the last independent media voices in Russia, was gunned down in the afternoon of October 7, 2006, in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
It took authorities nearly eight years and two trials to convict five men for her murder, in May, but the individuals that ordered her death remain unknown and free.
Three Chechen brothers, their uncle, and a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime were found guilty of coordinating and executing the hit, and were given jail terms ranging from 12 years to life.
A sixth man, also a former police officer, was tried separately behind closed doors, and negotiated with prosecutor for a more lenient sentence, agreeing, among other things, to name the mastermind of the murder.
But he never did, according to Politkovskaya's supporters. Instead, last June, he appealed to have his sentence postponed, claiming health problems.
Despite Novaya Gazeta's ongoing reporting on the case, and international pressure on Russian authorities to solve it, the investigation has lagged.
"We still know nothing about who ordered the killing, but Russia's state media is trying to portray that the case is over," Ilya Politkovskiy, Anna's son, told Amnesty International. "I think we will only have the truth when there is a new government. You need to have political will. After that, everything will go fast and we'll have results. At the moment it's going nowhere."
The May verdicts, one of the Politkovskaya family lawyers said, were an attempt to divert attention from the case, while hiding the fact that authorities never made a genuine effort to find the real culprits.
"The life terms given to two secondary culprits in the murder are an attempt to avert the international attention away from the case, and from the fact that Anna Politkovskaya's killing remains unsolved," Karinna Moskalenko told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) after the trial. "We still don't know who the masterminds of the murder are, who organized the crime, who financed it, in what ways did the Russian special services participate in the killing, and why the accomplices employed with the FSB [the Russian Federal Security Service] and the police are still evading justice."
US officials also called on their Russian counterparts to bring those responsible for the murder to justice.
"The conviction in June of five people involved in the crime was a welcome step, but we continue to be concerned that the mastermind of her killing still has not been brought to justice," the US State Department said in a statement remembering the slain journalist today. "We urge Russian authorities to build on this year's convictions and identify and prosecute the person who ordered this terrible crime."
"We honor Anna Politkovskaya and the spirit of her work uncovering human rights abuses in the North Caucasus by again recalling the names of several other unsolved murders of journalists," the statement continued, listing the names of several other Russian reporters who also met her fate. "Impunity for these crimes, as well as for many other acts of violence against journalists and activists in recent years, has only worsened the atmosphere of intimidation for those who work to uncover corruption or human rights abuses."
Politkovskaya's murder became one of the most recognized cases of media repression and intimidation in Russia — but it was hardly an isolated case.
At least 16 reporters have been murdered in Russia in the past decade, according to the CPJ, which monitors press freedom worldwide. In most of those cases, no one was brought to justice.
Four _Novaya Gazeta _journalists and contributors have been murdered, and one more died in "suspicious" circumstances, according to Amnesty.
Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has signed a number of restrictive laws, further limiting, among other things, journalists' and bloggers' freedoms of expression. Violence against journalists has also been on the rise in Russia, accompanied an enabled by a growing culture of impunity, according to CPJ.
More recently, the conflict in Ukraine has provided another opportunity for media repression, with authorities blocking a number of sites independently reporting on developments in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and sacking the editors of others.
"In the past months and weeks the Russian authorities have embarked on a campaign to stifle free media," John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia program director at Amnesty, wrote earlier this year. "It started with unofficial censorship and self-censorship, and quickly evolved into open gagging of independent media outlets. This is reminiscent of the Soviet-era jamming of radio stations."
The group also asked newspapers worldwide to remember Politkovskaya. In the video below, the editorial staff of _Novaya Gazeta _remembers the journalist with origami flowers representing the front pages of papers that have responded to the call.
"While Anna's life was violently snuffed out, her work to defend human rights and speak truth to power will never be forgotten," Amnesty said in a statement today. "People around the world stand in solidarity with her family and former colleagues who continue to demand the truth and full justice for her killing."
"These people are murderers and they have the minds of murderers," Elena Milashina, who took over Politkovskaya's Chechnya beat at the paper, told the human rights watchdog about some of the subjects of her stories. "For them, the easiest way to dissolve a problem is to kill someone. After several murders of our colleagues, we understood this better than anyone else."
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