Russian journalists face violence, intimidation

Sergei Protazanov's killing in March was the latest in a series of violent attacks targeting journalists.

The road to Moscow's main international airport passes through Khimki, and all that most people ever see of it are rows of gray Soviet-era apartment blocks and a giant new shopping mall featuring Russia's first IKEA furniture shop.

But local civil society activists say what you don't see from the main highway is the fear that has been stalking this grim industrial suburb.

"The situation in Khimki is not normal; this is a kind of military dictatorship," says Yevgeniya Chirikova, a member of In Defense of Khimki Forest, a local environmental group. "Journalists and public figures are constantly being threatened. It's as if our local authorities cannot accept any different way of thinking."

Over the past year there has been a series of violent attacks on independent journalists here, culminating in the controversial death in late March of newspaper designer Sergei Protazanov, who had been preparing an issue of the oppositionist Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye devoted to electoral fraud in Khimki's March 1 mayoral contest. That election was won by the candidate of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party.

Mikhail Beketov, editor of another local paper and a stern critic of district authorities, is still lying in a coma after being beaten viciously by unknown assailants in November. Mr. Beketov's lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was gunned down in central Moscow in January, with another journalist, Anastasia Baburova. She was a freelancer with the crusading Moscow weekly, Novaya Gazeta.

Many experts warn that the crisis in Khimki is not so much an anomaly as it is a lightning flash that illuminates a much wider pattern of human rights abuses and deteriorating personal safety for dissenters in many regions across Russia. They claim that the Kremlin winks at local crackdowns, thus creating license for regional officials who increasingly resort to illicit police actions or private thugs to settle scores.

"The number of attacks on oppositionists, journalists, and critical politicians is growing" across the country, says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with the Russian movement called For Human Rights, a Moscow-based grass-roots monitoring group. "It isn't necessarily always the authorities who are to blame, but they create an atmosphere in which all kinds of [vigilante] groups – who think their duty is to defend the regime – feel free to act."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists lists 16 journalists murdered in Russia over the past decade for doing their jobs. Every single case has gone unsolved. That may be just the tip of the iceberg, says Tatiana Lokshina, Moscow head of the global monitoring group Human Rights Watch.

"The situation in Russia has been deteriorating for several years," she says. "It is becoming catastrophic." She points to the case of Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Movement for Human Rights, who was beaten viciously by a group of hooded thugs in front of his Moscow apartment on March 31.

Police reported that he was a victim of "hooliganism," a minor crime that is often cited by Russian officials to characterize violent assaults on civil society activists.

"People are being killed. People are being attacked," says Ms. Lokshina. "In most of these cases there is no effective investigation carried out by authorities, and our questions to the prosecutor's office go unanswered. The human rights climate in Russia today is absolutely outrageous."

Mr. Protazanov was found lying in a Khimki street on March 29, and died the next day at home after doctors discharged him from the hospital. Local police say he died of "accidental poisoning," and reports surfaced in the state-controlled media that he had been a drug and alcohol abuser.

But his editor, Anatoly Yurov, says the poisoning claim is "rubbish" and that Protazanov was beaten by thugs and left for dead.

Mr. Yurov has some direct exper­ience in this regard: He has been attacked three times, one of them a knife assault last year that left him with 10 stab wounds.

"We had three independent newspapers here in Khimki," he says. "One, Grazhdansky Forum, closed down. Another was Khim­khinskaya Pravda, whose editor – Beketov – is still in hospital, and the paper doesn't come out. All three staff members of our paper, Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye, have been attacked at different times. So, what do you think is going on here?"

He blames local authorities, who had been the target of intense criticism from all three papers.

"They do not like it when somebody says something against them. One of their elections slogans was: 'If you're not with us, you're against us,' " he says.

Though local situations are different in far-flung regions across Russia, the toll of intimidated, injured, and dead journalists is on the rise, says Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, who has spent much of the past two years supervising his paper's investigation into the high-profile murder of its investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.

"If a journalist starts looking into corruption, sooner or later he runs afoul of local authorities, who are connected with the police," editor Yurov continues.

"Most of the attacks [on journalists] remain unpunished," he says, "and for this you have to blame the authorities. There is a general environment of impunity for officials in this country."

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