Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, confirmed yesterday that Anna Politkovskaya, the paper’s award-winning Chechnya correspondent, was forced to leave Russia following threats made against her. While various media have reported over the last week that Politkovskaya left Russia for Austria, Sokolov told Radio Ekho Moskvy she had left Russia voluntarily but refused to say exactly where she had gone. Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based media watchdog the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told the radio station that prior to receiving the threats, Politkovskaya had been invited to Austria to work on a book about Chechnya (Radio Ekho Moskvy, October 16).
Last month, Novaya Gazeta published an article by Politkovskaya entitled “Lyudi ischezayushchiye” (“Disappearing people”), in which she claimed that a group of Russian policemen from Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiisk region committed various human rights abuses while serving a tour of duty in the Oktyabrsk district of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital. In particular, Politkovskaya reported that on January 2 of this year, members of this group arrested a 26-year-old Chechen named Zelimkhan Murdalov, after which they severely beat him and cut off his right ear. Murdalov was subsequently taken from his cell, ostensibly to the hospital for treatment, but was not seen afterwards. Under pressure from his relatives, the Djohar prosecutor’s office ordered the detention of several of the Khanty-Mansiisk policemen who had arrested and allegedly tortured him, but their superiors transferred the policemen back home. In March of this year, two investigators traveled from Djohar to the Siberian town of Nizhnevartavsk to arrest one of the police officers–Sergei Lapin, alias “Kadet”–but were allowed only to get a guarantee from him that he would not leave the town for the duration of the investigation. A month later the Nizhnevartavsk city court ordered that the restrictions on Lapin’s movements be lifted (Novaya Gazeta, September 10).
Novaya Gazeta reported this week that following the publication of “Disappearing people,” it received an email giving the paper ten days to retract the article, “otherwise the police officer hired by you as a guard will not be enough to help you.” The email was signed “Kadet” (Novaya Gazeta, October 15). Vyacheslav Izmailov, Novaya Gazeta’s military correspondent, said late last week that that the email from “Kadet” had arrived on October 10 and that other threats against Politkovskaya, which he did not specify, were being passed to him by the “special services” (Moscow Times, October 12).
Some of these threats may be connected to another Politkovskaya article that Novaya Gazeta published last month. That article strongly hinted–without saying directly–that a military helicopter shot down over the Chechen capital on September 17 was brought down not by a Chechen rebel armed with a shoulder-launched missile, as the Russian military claims, but by someone connected to Russian military (Novaya Gazeta, September 20). As Politkovskaya subsequently noted, the two generals and eight colonels in the helicopter were part of a group from the armed forces general staff that had been tasked with collecting information for President Vladimir Putin about crimes by the military in Chechnya. The Defense Ministry was not happy about this article. Politkovskaya said that in mid-September she began receiving warnings that she would not be safe if she returned to Chechnya (Chechnya Weekly, October 16).
This week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “deeply concerned” about the threats against Politkovskaya and called on the Russian government to take “forceful action to investigate these threats and prosecute those responsible” (Committee to Protect Journalists, October 15; see also Chechnya Weekly, October 16).
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