A masked assassin with a silencer on his gun crept up behind Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer with an insurgent spirit and a penchant for underdogs, and shot him dead in broad daylight today. A freelance reporter with Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper was also killed in the attack.
Markelov had just given a news conference about the last Thursday’s early release of Yuri Budanov, the former Russian colonel whose imprisonment for killing an 18-year-old Chechen woman fascinated and polarized the country. Markelov was a lawyer for the Chechen family; he was fighting to get Budanov back behind bars.
Markelov was killed just half a mile from the Kremlin amid the bustle of a business day. His death shocked Moscow’s tight-knit community of human rights groups and defense lawyers. The brazen strike, heavy with a sense of impunity, was reminiscent of the 2006 slaying of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
“A very simple and efficient mechanism to get rid of anyone they don’t want in their way is in effect,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a lawyer with Moscow’s Civic Assistance organization and colleague of Markelov. “Anybody can be killed like this, in broad daylight, in the center of town. I think the plan was not only to kill a particular person but also to terrify the rest of society.”
Media reports identified the journalist shot along with Markelov as Anastasia Baburova. She reportedly died on an operating table.
Markelov had been deeply embroiled in the Budanov case in recent days, lobbying angrily for the former officer to be sent back to prison. The lawyer had filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to block Budanov’s release, and was also pushing for the former colonel to be tried anew based on evidence that Kheda Kungayeva, the slain teenager, had been raped before she was killed in 2000.
Meanwhile, rare protests shook Chechnya, where Budanov was seen as a symbol of the largely ignored stories of torture, disappearance and rape of civilians during the two Chechen wars. In other corners of Russia, Budanov was regarded as a hero by some military and ultranationalistic circles.
Markelov had been receiving death threats in text messages and a telephone call in recent days, said Vissa Kungayev, the father of the slain Chechen girl.
“He told me, ‘Vissa, I am being threatened; they want me to drop the Budanov case and they said if I don’t, they will kill me,’ ” Kungayev said by phone from Norway, where he fled with his wife and remaining children after his daughter’s death.
“Some people say he was killed because he was conducting some other cases connected to Chechnya,” Kungayev said. “But I am 100% sure he was killed because of my case.”
In the Chechen capital of Grozny, the republic’s human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev also linked the killing to the Budanov case.