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Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with journalists of the government press pool in Moscow on March 7, 2012. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Who Is Murdering Russian Journalists?

David Satter

There is powerful evidence that Vladimir Putin is guilty of the murder of journalists, but it is impossible to “prove” his guilt because there is no police force in Russia that will investigate him and no court where he can be held to account.

Under these circumstances, Donald Trump’s statement (to critics who took exception to the mutual praise between the two men) that there is no proof that Putin is guilty of murder is an absurdity. Proof presumes the existence of a state based on law.

Journalists and human-rights advocates in Russia have long been blocked in their attempts to investigate the murders of their colleagues. The authorities make no serious attempt to bring the persons who ordered the killings to justice, although they may arrest the triggermen. More ominously, when underlings are charged, they turn out to have a maze of connections to the security services themselves.

Nonetheless, persons interested in the truth can form a realistic impression of Putin’s guilt on the basis of three well-known murders, those of Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. In each case, the pattern is the same: a serious political opponent, clear evidence of official involvement, and extraordinary efforts to sabotage the investigation. If one adds to this, Putin’s statement in his inaugural speech in 2000 that “in Russia, the President answers for everything,” the reality of the situation becomes completely clear.

Shchekochikhin was a member of the State Duma and a reporter for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. He investigated the mysterious 1999 Russian apartment bombings that brought Putin to power and, in his capacity as a journalist, he also investigated the case of the Grand and Three Whales furniture stores, which were founded by the father of a high-ranking FSB (Federal Security Service) official and had reportedly evaded millions of dollars in import duties. He had been in perfect health but became sick after returning to Moscow from a trip to Ryazan in July 2003. The illness progressed catastrophically, from peeling skin to “edemas of the respiratory system and brain” and finally death. His relatives were denied an official medical report about the cause of his illness and forbidden to take tissue samples. At his funeral, no one was allowed to approach the body.

Perhaps the best-known killing of a political opponent was that of Alexander Litvinenko, a fugitive FSB agent who wrote about the 1999 apartment bombings and the FSB’s links to organized crime. Litvinenko became ill on November 1 after drinking tea with Andrei Lugovoy, the owner of a Moscow security company, and Lugovoy’s associate, Dmitri Kovtun, in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London. For the next two days, he began to suffer from vomiting and diarrhea. His hair began falling out and he experienced a sharp drop in his white-blood-cell count. Litvinenko’s doctors suspected radiation poisoning, but only gamma and beta particles can penetrate the skin and there was no gamma or beta radiation in his blood. On November 23, he was pronounced dead.

Before he died, Litvinenko wrote a statement in which he accused Putin of his murder. “You may succeed in silencing one man,” he wrote, “but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

After Litvinenko’s death, British experts discovered polonium-210, an alpha emitter, in his urine. Polonium cannot pass through the body but is deadly when taken internally. Traces of polonium were subsequently found by the British police at the Pine Bar, at a sushi restaurant where Litvinenko dined with Lugovoy and Kovtun on October 16, and on the seat occupied by Lugovoy on a British Airways flight from Moscow to London on October 25.

At a news conference after Litvinenko’s death but before the polonium was discovered, Putin said there was no indication that Litvinenko had died a violent death and that the case was being used for political purposes. Six months after Litvinenko’s death, the British prosecutor officially requested Lugovoy’s extradition. Putin refused, saying the Russian constitution barred sending citizens abroad for trial, even though Russia had signed the Council of Europe Extradition Convention in 2001. In December 2007, Lugovoy was elected to the Russian parliament. He insisted he was being framed by Britain’s MI5. In an interview with the Russian press about requests that he go to London for questioning, he said, “Why should I drop everything and rush off to England?”

Another well-known dissident who was murdered was Anna Politkovskya, who reported for Novaya Gazeta on Russian atrocities in Chechnya. On October 7, 2006, she was shot four times in her apartment building after stepping out of the elevator on her floor.

After her death, Putin said that Politkovskaya’s influence was “minimal.” He also said that her murder “caused much more damage to the authorities than her reporting” — raising the possibility that, in his mind, if it had caused less damage, killing her would have been acceptable.

In November 2008, three persons were put on trial for Politkovskaya’s murder: two Chechen brothers, Ibrahim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former member of the Russian internal ministry’s organized-crime unit. A fourth person, Pavel Ryaguzov, a former FSB lieutenant colonel, was suspected of taking a leading role in the plot but was not charged due to a lack of evidence. A third brother, Rustam Makhmudov, the suspected triggerman, escaped abroad. Putin hinted that the mastermind was the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a political enemy of Putin’s.

The trial ended on February 19, 2009, with the acquittal of all three defendants amid signs that the FSB had sabotaged the prosecution. The FSB leaked information about the identity of the suspects, making it possible for the triggerman to escape, and prevented investigators from seizing Ryaguzov’s office computer. The ties between the assassination team, the FSB, and the police were also found to be far more extensive than was first revealed. Sergei Sokolov, the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, which conducted its own investigation, testified that Dzabrail Makhmudov was an FSB agent and that he and his brothers were recruited by their uncle, Lomi-Ali Gaitukayev, also an FSB agent, who reported to Ryaguzov and was in prison for the attempted murder of a Ukrainian businessman.

In June 2009, the acquittals were overturned by the Russian Supreme Court, which cited procedural errors. In the meantime, Novaya Gazeta found evidence that Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, a high-ranking Moscow police officer and witness at the first trial, had been hired by Gaitukayev to place Politkovskaya under surveillance. He gave the assassins her address and the weapons and bullets they used to kill her.

In August 2011, Pavluchenkov was arrested and charged with Politkovskaya’s murder. He struck a deal with the prosecution: In exchange for naming the mastermind of the crime, the charge against him was reduced from organizing the murder to involvement in it. But he never testified about the supposed mastermind. Instead, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said that “Pavlyuchenkov . . . testified that he was told by Gaitukayev that the masterminds were Berezovsky and [Akhmed] Zakaev” (Zakaev is the head of the Chechen government in exile).

In fact, Pavluchenkov’s deal with the prosecution made it possible to cover the trail leading to the mastermind. There is no evidence to support the official story that Berezovsky was behind the crime. On June 20, 2014, five persons were convicted. Gaitukayev, who recruited the gang, and his nephew Rustam Makhmudov, the gunman, received life in prison. Ibragim and Dzabarail Makhmudov were sentenced to 12 and 14 years respectively for following Politkovskaya on the day she was killed. Khadzhikurbanov received 20 years as an accomplice. None of them is likely to have known who ordered the killing.

The cases of Shchekochikhin, Litvinenko, and Politkovskaya are among the best-known of the political murders in Russia under Putin, but there are many others where the pattern of likely regime or FSB involvement and a subsequent sabotage of the investigation is clearly evident, including the cases of the American journalist Paul Klebnikov, human-rights activist Natalya Estimirov, Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov, and others. Seen as a whole, these cases make clear that what is involved is deliberate terror against the opposition that, in the unitary Russian system, could only be directed by Putin.

Unfortunately, American presidential candidates are often not interested in understanding the details of what is happening in Russia, and a particularly reckless candidate can become what Lenin described as a “useful idiot.” This is a person whose superficiality makes him ideally suited to serve Russian purposes and whose self-confidence is constantly stoked with signs of esteem from the Russian leaders, who assure him that whatever others may think of him, they are and will remain his true friends.

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