Slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya symbol of threatened press

Anna Politkovskaya was murdered three years ago, but her killers have not been brought to justice. Russian journalists say that's a sign of how dangerous their jobs have become.

By , Correspondent

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    A woman places flowers at a portrait of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, during a rally in downtown Moscow, Wednesday, on the third anniversary of her assassination.
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The weather was sunny and clear, but the mood was grim as hundreds gathered in a downtown Moscow park Wednesday to remember crusading reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down, virtually at her own doorstep, in a political assassination three years ago.

The still unsolved murder of Russia's best-known investigative journalist raised suspicions of Kremlin involvement -- which have yet to be laid to rest -- and highlighted the plight of Russian media workers, who often face intimidation and violence when they attempt to do their jobs.

"Over 300 journalists have been killed in Russia in the past 15 years," says Pavel Gutionov, an official at Russia's 100,000-member Union of Journalists. "What other country has a record like that? Anna has become the symbol of what is happening here in Russia, and the fate of journalism in this country."

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Two representatives of the international watchdog group Reporters Without Borders were apparently denied visas to attend Wednesday's memorial ceremony for Ms. Politkovskaya, a fact which many at the meeting cited as an illustration of Russian officialdom's ongoing displeasure with her and the work that she did.

Politkovskaya was one of a handful of Russian journalists to cover the brutal war in Chechnya, which the Kremlin has since declared to be pacified.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, has clamped a tight lid on dissent, and even Politkovskaya's old newspaper, the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, has stopped sending journalists to cover events in the republic out of fear for their lives.

Several human rights monitors have been killed or driven out of Chechnya in recent months, including Politkovskaya's close friend Natalya Estimirova, whose bullet-ridden body was dumped by a roadside in Ingushetia last July.

Many of Politkovskaya's friends and colleagues say they now despair of ever seeing justice done, after a long and much-criticized official investigation that ended with the surprise acquittal of three suspects by a Moscow jury last February.

In June, Russia's Supreme Court quashed the acquittals, and ordered a retrial of the same defendants. But the two Chechen brothers and a former police officer facing retrial are suspected merely of being accomplices in the killing. The actual trigger man and the "mastermind" thought to have ordered Politkovskaya's death have never been named, much less called to account.

"Our family is starting to lose hope that the whole chain of those involved in this crime will be found and brought to court, because, as time goes by, the chances of finding the people involved in this murder are fading," Politkovskaya's daughter Vera told journalists Tuesday.

Politkovskaya's colleagues at the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, where her unoccupied desk still sits as a newsroom monument, say they have been conducting their own parallel inquiries into the murder and still have hopes that the case can be broken.

"The supplementary investigation now under way is the last chance for the [police] to prove that they can find those who are guilty of Politkovskaya's murder," says Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta.

"Political will is the only thing that's needed now to locate and name the person who ordered her killing, no matter what post this person holds," she says. "Time is passing, and it works against us. We're going to keep fighting and we're not going to leave this where it is."

Novaya Gazeta's editor, Sergei Sokolov, created a stir this week by naming Rustam Makhmoudov, brother of two of the defendants, as the gunman who shot Politkovskaya in her apartment lobby in 2006. He said Mr. Makhmoudov is on the run "somewhere in the European Union," and could be arrested at any time.

But others say the authorities have contributed to an atmosphere that has stifled Russia's journalistic community and are unlikely to do anything to make reporters feel safer.

"Since 1993, not a single murder of a journalist killed in the line of work has been solved," says Oleg Panfilov, director of the independent Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a watchdog group. "I don't think the authorities will ever punish themselves. The state of journalism in Russia is catastrophic, and there is no hope that it will change."

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