Russian Journalists Face Violence, Intimidation

Article excerpt

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. …