In shift, Kremlin reopens cases of Russian reporters' unsolved murders

The announcement came during the Kremlin's meeting today with the Committee to Protect Journalists. Rights groups have been pressing to address major unsolved murders, such as the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya.

Pavel Golovkin/AP/File
A woman places flowers at a portrait of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya during a rally in downtown Moscow, Oct. 7, 2009. Top Kremlin officials are meeting today with the Committee to Protect Journalists and pledged to aggressively pursue investigations into 19 unsolved, work-related murders of Russian journalists.

The Kremlin said this week it is reopening several unsolved murders of journalists, showing a change in tone from years of official inactivity and stymied justice. But some human rights activists are skeptical that a genuine shift is under way, evidenced in part by the lack of progress in determining who killed internationally acclaimed reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Top Moscow authorities met Thursday with a visiting delegation from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and pledged to aggressively pursue investigations into 19 unsolved, work-related murders of Russian journalists since Vladimir Putin came to power a decade ago, including at least five cases that had previously been closed or suspended.

"This is the third time we've come to Moscow to urge authorities to pursue journalist killings effectively, and this is the first time we've been granted an extensive audience with the authorities who are directly responsible for investigating these cases," says Nina Ognianova, the group's Europe coordinator.

Kremlin targets killers

She was part of the delegation that met with Alexander Bastrykin, head of a new and powerful Kremlin-run Investigative Committee that was set up three years ago to bypass regular prosecutors but was recently beefed-up by President Dmitry Medvedev.

"It seems like this new tone is coming from the very top. There is a perceived seriousness on the part of the Kremlin to deal with these cases, and perhaps that's because the president is concerned with Russia's image abroad," says Ms. Ognianova.

Earlier this week Mr. Bastrykin told journalists that police were closing in on the killer of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, whose body was found by a roadside in Ingushetia a year ago. She was the last human rights-oriented journalist to operate in Chechnya, which is run with an iron fist by Moscow-installed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. "We have unmasked the killer. We know his name. We hope to detain him soon," he said.

Rights groups unimpressed

Could the moves signal that Russia's political balance is shifting toward the more liberal policies reportedly favored by Mr. Medvedev?

Russian human rights workers say they have heard all this before, and are not impressed.

"We are used to these empty declarations that get pronounced from time to time," says Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner. "What happened here is that an international organization appealed to Medvedev, and our superliberal president ordered his subordinates to tell them something. Why should we pay attention to this?"

Next week Moscow activists will mark the fourth anniversary of Ms. Politkovskaya's murder, a case that has seen two botched trials and a string of unfulfilled pledges from prosecutors.

No progress on major cases

"We received emphatic assurances that the Politkovskaya case is being aggressively investigated," says Ognianova. "Of course we're not satisfied. It's been four years, and both the killers and the mastermind who ordered her murder are still at large."

Another probe that has not moved forward is the 2004 assassination of Forbes' Russia editor, American journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was gunned down on a Moscow street. A new investigator has been appointed in that case, Russian officials say.

Russia is one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists to work, and more than 50 have been killed in the line of duty since 1992. Human rights monitors say that harassment and intimidation against journalists intensified during the Putin years.

Medvedev, despite bringing a more liberal-sounding tone to the Kremlin, has been slow to make any detectable changes during his 2-1/2 years in office. Some experts say he may now be finally consolidating his vast constitutional powers as president and even preparing to wield them assertively – as he did by sacking conservative Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov earlier this week.

"Yes, we do see that the rhetoric is different, and political fashions are changing, but there is a great distance between words and actions," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"When we look for concrete results of this new tone, well, there aren't any noticeable ones yet."

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