Rule of Law Institute
  Anna Politkovskaya

Murderers of Politkovskaya May Be Hiding
in Siberia

Local police officers are under suspicion

Former officers of Nizhnevartovsk’s police could be involved in the murder of Novaya Gazeta’s columnist Anna Politkovskaya. The journalist helped to put one of them in prison while two other officers were placed on the international wanted list and six more are still under suspicion.

The investigation team of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya went to Nizhnevartovsk, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area in Siberia last week. They received information that two former police officers Major Alexander Prilepin and Lieutenant Colonel Valery Minin were seen in the city. The men are wanted internationally for crimes they committed in Chechnya.

The investigators, however, did not find the men in the city but they interrogated Prilepin and Minin’s relatives and former colleagues.

Between 2002 and 2005, Anna Politkovskaya wrote several stories in Novaya Gazeta about the murder of Zelimkhan Murdalov, 30, from Grozny in January 2001. The journalist learnt that the Chechen was detained for no clear reason by police officers who went from Siberia to Chechnya. The men killed Murdalov, hid his body to cover up tracks. Politkovskaya was the first to name possible perpetrators of the crime – Senior Lieutenant Sergey Lapin from Nizhnevartovsk and his commanders, Major Prilepin and Colonel Lieutenant Minin. She wrote later that these officers and some other employees of the Interior Ministry were involved in the killing of Zelimkhan Murdalov and dozen of other Chechen civilians.

Sergey Lapin was sentenced to 11 years in prison last March. His accomplices are still on the wanted list.

I cannot say that articles by Anna Politkovskaya influenced the trial and the subsequent verdict,” Stanislav Markelov, lawyer of the relatives of the slain Chechen, says. “Still, the officers believed that she was the motor of the case, and they put the blame for all their problems on her.”

Journalists from Novaya Gazeta recall that Anna Politkovskaya received letters, emails and phone calls with threats during preliminary investigation and even after the trial of Sergey Lapin.

Politkovskaya was shot dead on October 7, and officers from Nizhnevartovsk also came under suspicion. Lapin is not among them – he is currently serving his term in a prison in Nizhny Tagil. Moscow investigators, however, keep an eye on his relatives. They have already interrogated Lapin’s father and sister.

It is no accident that the investigators questioned the officer’s sister. The latest theory of Politkovskaya’s murder has it that at least three people were involved in the killing, including a man and a young woman who were following the journalist. They appeared in footage of close circuit cameras at the Ramstore shop. The perpetrator of the crime is believed to be a tall ethnic Slavonic man who had sporty or army bearing, as witnesses say. Investigators have already drawn the portrait of the suspect. It has not been published, though, due to security reasons. The Prosecutor General’s Office hopes that the man will be recognized by military men or police officers from Chechnya without publicity and will be caught soon.

Sergey Mashkin, Andrey Salnikov and Ruslan Sakaev from Ekaterinburg

Source: 25 October 2006, Kommersant


A Russian officer charged with issuing death threats against Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter with the Moscow-based twice-weekly newspaper "Novaya gazeta," was cleared on 4 March, the CPJ reported the next day. Politkovskaya is a leading investigative reporter who has written about human rights abuses committed by the Russian military in Chechnya. The prosecutor's office in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk dropped the criminal charge against Sergei Lapin, a Russian officer nicknamed "Kadet," after evidence emerged that another person, who died last year, issued the threats and signed Lapin's nickname to them. Politkovskaya's lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, plans to appeal the decision. Politkovskaya began receiving threats via e-mail after "Novaya gazeta" published an article on 10 September 2001 entitled "The Disappeared People," in which she charged that Lapin committed atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. She specifically cited Lapin's alleged role in the disappearance of Zelimkhan Murdalov, a resident of Grozny. The e-mails said that Lapin was coming to Moscow seeking revenge for the article. Early last year, Lapin was arrested in connection with the Murdalov case. However, on 31 May, the Pyatigorsk City Court released him from pretrial detention on the grounds that he did not pose a danger to society and could await trial in his home city of Nizhnevartovsk. According to a letter from the Nizhnevartovsk prosecutor's office that was published in "Novaya gazeta" on 5 September 2002, Lapin was charged with issuing death threats against Politkovskaya in late July 2002, but remained at large.

Source: 09 March 2003, Gateway to Russia

Suspect charged with threatening journalist is cleared

New York, March 5, 2003—A suspect accused of issuing death threats against Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent with the Moscow-based twice weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was cleared of the criminal charge against him yesterday. Politkovskaya is well known in Russia for her investigative reports on human rights abuses committed by the Russian military in Chechnya.

The prosecutor’s office in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk dropped the criminal charge against Sergei Lapin, a Russian officer nicknamed "Kadet," citing evidence that another individual, who died in 2002, issued the threats and signed Lapin’s nickname to them.

Politkovskaya’s lawyer Stanislav Markelov plans to appeal the decision. "Of course we will protest this decision," Markelov told CPJ. "It seems very strange that another individual threatened her [Politkovskaya] and signed his [Lapin’s] nickname to the letters," he added.

Politkovskaya began receiving the threats via e-mail after
Novaya Gazeta published her September 10, 2001, article, titled "The Disappeared People," in which she reported that Lapin committed atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. She specifically cited his role in the disappearance of Zelimkhan Murdalov, a resident of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. The e-mails said that Lapin was coming to Moscow to avenge the article.

In October 2001, security guards were assigned to protect Politkovskaya, and she was instructed by
Novaya Gazeta not to leave her home. Novaya Gazeta‘s senior staff, however, decided that these safety precautions were insufficient, and Politkovskaya fled to Austria. She returned to Moscow in December 2001.

In early 2002 Lapin was arrested in connection to the Murdalov case. However, on May 31, 2002, the Pyatigorsk City Court in southern Russia released him from temporary detention on the grounds that he did not pose a danger to society and could await his trial in his home city of Nizhnevartovsk. According to a letter from the Nizhnevartovsk prosecutor’s office published in the September 5, 2002, edition of
Novaya Gazeta, Lapin was charged with issuing death threats against Politkovskaya in late July 2002, but remained free.

"Given the pattern of harassment against Anna Politkovskaya and the serious nature of threats against her, we are disappointed by yesterday’s decision and remain concerned about our colleague’s safety," said Joel Simon, acting director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists. 

The Courage of Anna Politkovskaya

Editor's Note: On the first anniversary of the murder of crusading Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, of the Russian human rights group Memorial, tells a harrowing story about Politkovskaya's confrontation in Chechnya with the notorious Sergey Lapin, a police official responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of Chechen civilians. She received the first annual award commemorating Politkovskya's work from the international human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) in London October 5.

They met in November 2003--the famous journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the policeman Sergey Lapin--in a tumbledown court building that was part of the Oktyabrsky District Court in Grozny. He was accompanied by a strong, heavily armed and camouflaged escort composed of several armored personnel carriers (APCs), which surrounded the building. She was with several of her friends, each of whom had suffered in one way or another at the hands of Lapin and his associates. He was on trial, and the very fact that this had actually happened was largely due to Anna. Thanks to her efforts his name was soon to be known to the whole world. To his victims he was known by the nickname Cadet.

In September 2001, Anna had met the Murdalov family, whose only son, Zelimkhan, had disappeared. Paradoxically, the building where he'd disappeared was occupied at the time by a multiservice team of police officers from the Federal District of Khanty-Mansijsk in the north of Russia.

At the time, Chechen police were considered incapable of maintaining law and order in Chechnya and (in addition to local police divisions in each of the districts) parallel divisions had been set up, staffed with police officers from other Russian regions. The "Khantys" moved into the building (a boarding school for deaf children, who had been placed elsewhere) in January 2000. In January 2001, they dragged 26-year-old Zelimkhan Murdalov into it. As it later transpired, he was tortured and tormented for several hours in an attempt to turn him into an informant. Then, while he was in a semi-conscious state, he was thrown into a cell. The following morning, the dying Murdalov was dragged out again. That was the last time anyone saw him. (He was to be their last victim.)

How many other corpses they had taken out of the building, that year, they would probably find it difficult to recall themselves. But it is clear that dozens had disappeared inside the boarding school and in the vicinity. This death factory was stopped by Zelimkhan's parents, who fought to find out the truth about their son's fate despite the threats and hostility of those who were supposed to assist them. Shocked by the despair of Zelimkhan's mother and impressed by his father's resolve, Anna wrote an article, later to appear under the headline "The Disappearance," in which she named Sergey (Cadet) Lapin as one of the culprits for the first time. When witnesses began to "talk," in her articles, the horrific details of what Lapin had done in regard to various detainees sent shivers down many readers' spines.

Immediately, Anna's newspaper received a letter in which Lapin threatened the journalist with retaliation. The letter was passed on to a prosecutor to deal with, while Anna turned her attention to the Murdalov family, who were in obvious danger. The family lived in the two rooms still standing in the ruins of their house, from which, through the holes left by bullets and shells you could glimpse the APCs as they passed by. From the street you could also see right into the Murdalovs' house, but it was in that house that Anna stayed on her several visits to Chechnya.

No, she was not reckless. She was well aware of the gravity of the situation, particularly when she learned, in March 2002, that the interservice police detachment from Khanty-Mansijsk was coming back to Chechnya. Her fears were not unfounded--one day a car without a license plate arrived at the Murdalovs' house. Masked gunmen came in and warned the family that they should take care, as the Khantys were around. This was not an idle warning. Some people did break into the house in the middle of the night soon after that, but then left saying that they had the wrong address.

But it would have been impossible to mistake the house, as it was the only one still standing on the entire block. The situation was clearly becoming too dangerous, and Anna succeeded in getting Zelimkhan's mother, Rukiyat, and his sister, Zalina, out of Russia. By then, they had managed to achieve the unimaginable, in pursuing justice. The main suspect in the case involving Zelimkhan Murdalov, Sergey Lapin, had been detained and brought to Grozny. Everyone thought that what had happened to Zelimkhan would soon be revealed, and the culprits would stand trial. Anna, too, was called up to the office of the Chechnya prosecutor. She was, after all, a victim of Lapin's intimidation as well.

This time she had come to Chechnya on an official visit. She was supposed to spend the night in the safety of the prosecutor's office--a "portacabin" in the ruined city; this was considered the height of luxury, because it had running water. But that night, February 28, 2003, proved in reality to be one of the most dangerous and harrowing of her life. She at first spent several hours waiting in the street for Chechnya's prosecutor, Vsevolod Chernov, and the investigating officer, Ignatenko, to find the time to talk to her. This was followed by an interrogation, which lasted well into the night. Then the investigating officer ordered that she be escorted out of the building. It was by then the middle of the night. A few days before her visit, in the very same place, a man had disappeared in plain daylight, right in front of the prosecutor's office and the FSB building. Anna knew about that. One can only imagine what she felt at the time. She hadn't eaten or drunk anything all day, nor even had access to a toilet. She was not allowed to call her newspaper, and none of her friends at the time had a telephone. This was not the first time that her trust in the authorities could have proved tragic.

After that, she stayed only with friends. I was always afraid when complete strangers approached her in the street to talk to her. But she was not afraid to stay with me in my flat, even though there was no glass in the windows and the door had been broken down several times by the Federals (the Russian Army) and looters, and was no thicker than an eggshell. My neighbors knew when she came to visit, but there were no traitors among them. Their thoughtfulness was stronger than any lock.

Lapin did not spend long in detention. The prosecutor found him to be a low-risk case, and he was released into his own custody. Immediately after his release, the thirty most important documents relating to his case mysteriously disappeared. Had it not been for Anna's angry articles, the case would have been hopelessly lost. But Anna managed to publish copies of the disappeared papers, and then several of them oddly turned up later in the prosecutor's office.

So time passed, and it was autumn 2003 before Cadet's trial finally got started. To begin with, he used a variety of pretexts not to turn up. The judge did not dare issue a warrant for his arrest while the prosecutor was, in fact, acting in his defense. When he did finally appear, it looked as though his many guards, armed more heavily than the court officers, were about to arrest the court. That was the moment when Anna and Cadet finally looked each other in the eye. She looked straight at him, but he kept averting his eyes, unsure of himself in her presence, even when protected by armed bodyguards.

Yet when the judge finally ordered the officers of the court to put handcuffs on him a year and a half later, at one of the hearings, Anna was not there. The situation in Chechnya had become too dangerous for her, and her friends had asked her to stay away. Her editor also stopped her from going there. She felt very hurt, and there was a bitter exchange between them. She had worked so hard on this case, had found Stanislav Markelov, the only lawyer in Moscow, who agreed to go to Grozny, had persuaded Amnesty International to pay his fees because the Murdalovs did not have the money to do so, and had even got all the Russian TV channels to broadcast the trial. Thanks to her efforts, Amnesty International had launched a worldwide campaign urging Vladimir Putin to bring Cadet to justice. Finally, the judge pronounced the sentence--Eleven years for torture and humiliation--but Anna only learned about it from the lawyer.

Disappointment? Frustration? This was only the beginning of it. Lapin should have been tried together with his bosses, who had managed to escape justice completely and were sheltered in the comfort of their homes. In the meantime, the ghosts of their victims cried out for justice. Finally, an international search warrant was put out for them. They remain on the "wanted" list. Anna's killers have been so much faster.

Anna was murdered on October 7, 2006. On October 26, the Supreme Court overturned Cadet's conviction. Was this a coincidence? There have been too many coincidences in this case, I think; so convenient for the perpetrators.

A new trial is now going on in Grozny. Once again we hear witness statements about the events in the cells of the Oktyabrsky police station, which make our hearts miss a beat, and once again we have to persuade witnesses to come forward despite possible repercussions. So who are the winners? There are none. Yet thousands of young people's lives have been saved, even though they may never get to know it. The same way Zelimkhan never got to know the consequences of his untimely death.

The building where people were maimed and murdered is no longer there. They pulled it down, allegedly to build a new boarding school for the deaf. This was over a year ago. The deaf children are still making do with a few small rooms in a private house, while the wasteland that was once the boarding house is overgrown with weeds. There are those with a vested interest in keeping this Russian Abu Ghraib forgotten--so that they can once again kidnap and torture. Our task, however, is to uncover their deeds and to fight them. Anna was at the forefront of this work for many years.

She is no more. Now it is up to us to continue her work.

by Natalya Estemirova

Source: The Nation, October 4, 2007,

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