Europe to the Rescue: The Killing of Journalists in Russia and the European Court of Human Rights

By Smith, Wrede | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Europe to the Rescue: The Killing of Journalists in Russia and the European Court of Human Rights


Smith, Wrede, The George Washington International Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Anna Politkovskaya was a rarity among journalists in Russia. Rather than comply with the will of President Vladimir Putin's regime and avoid politically disfavored topics, she wrote about the victims of "Putin's Russia"-conscripted Russian soldiers, Chechen civilians, and others harmed by Russia's corrupt political and business elite.1 On October 7, 2006, she left her apartment in Moscow to run errands.2 When she returned, a thin man dressed in a black baseball cap approached her in the entryway of her apartment.3 Using the model of gun and method common among Russian hit men, the man shot her in the chest and head.4 A surveillance camera from the building's lobby captured video of the assassin.5 Politkovskaya's reports had targeted a long list of powerful people, including Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Kremlin itself.6 Speculation immediately ensued about whether an official from one of these groups had ordered her killing.7

Upon hearing of Politkovskaya's death, then-President Vladamir Putin addressed the issue three days later.8 He downplayed the importance of her death by calling her "insignificant" and characterizing her as having no real influence within Russia and merely as a symbol for Western journalists and human rights organizations.9 Putin was correct that Politkovskaya, a dual U.S. and Russian citizen, was more famous in the West than in Russia; she has become the best-known example for international observers wishing to highlight the frequency of murdered journalists in Russia.10 Despite Putin's assertions of her insignificance, Politkovskaya's memory continues to hold importance for human rights activists and democracy supporters within Russia.11

On July 15, 2009, journalist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped as she left her house in Grozny, the Chechyan capital.12 Four gunmen grabbed her and threw her into a car as she screamed at the top of her lungs.13 Eight hours later, officials reported that her body had been found sixty miles away in neighboring Ingushetia, dumped in a wooded area, about 100 meters from the roadside.14 Like Politkovskaya, she had gunshot wounds to the chest and the head-hallmarks of an execution killing.15

Estemirova had been documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya.16 Much of her reporting centered on the crime of enforced disappearances, in which citizens are kidnapped and often tortured or killed by state agents or members of armed groups who deny that the person is being held.17 She had investigated hundreds of such crimes.18 Her articles contained accusations of torture and other abuses by government forces, which drew the attention of Kadyrov, the Chechen president.19 Kadyrov had expressed his displeasure with Estemirova's work both publicly and in a face-to-face meeting with her in March 2008.20 Estemirova, a native Chechen, had worked in Grozny for eight years and, despite knowing the risk, continued her work nonetheless.21

Her killing affected further investigations into human rights violations in Chechnya.22 Memorial, the human rights group Estemirova worked for, and Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya's former newspaper, both removed their representatives from Chechnya soon after Estemirova's death, stating that their employees were at too great a risk of harm.23

Russia violates its domestic and international commitments when it fails to take steps to prevent the killings of journalists like Estemirova and Politkovskaya and when it fails to adequately investigate murders that take place. Due to problems within the Russian investigative system, a domestic remedy will not make journalists safer. Improving protection for Russian journalists must come from an international source. The institution with the most potential for effective action is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention), which contains a textual commitment to protect basic, specified human rights. …

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