Who Killed Markelov & Baburova?

About the author
Journalist of the Moscow office of the Liberty (Svoboda) Radio. Specialises in human rights cases and judicial affairs.

I learned of Stanislav Markelov's murder in the court room at the Moscow District Military Court, where the case of the murder of Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya is being heard. Journalists hardly ever switch off their mobile phones, even in the court room. When my colleague from the news agency RIA Novosti got an SMS that the lawyer, Markelov, had been killed in the centre of Moscow, the news flashed round the court room. Who did it, how, and why, we asked. 

The Budanov case

Markelov's name mostly came up of late in connection with the case of former Russian Army colonel Yury Budanov, who in 2000, abducted, raped (he was not actually charged with rape) and killed a Chechen girl, Elza Kungayeva. Markelov represented the Kungayev family's interests.

When the news came out that Budanov was to be released from prison early, it was Stanislav Markelov who tried to prevent the release, filing a protest in court. But the release went ahead regardless. Markelov called a press conference on January 19, and told journalists about what he planned to do next. He was shot when he left the press centre. The killer shot him in the head at close range. Standing next to him at that moment was Anastasia Baburova, a young intern at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She tried to stop the attacker and received a head wound. Doctors fought for her life for several hours but she died. Stanislav was 34, and Anastasia 25. 

People were quick to say the murder was politically motivated and accused the Russian authorities of failing to prevent attacks on lawyers, journalists and political figures. Lawyers have been murdered in the past in Russia, but all the best-known cases involved people with connections either to not the most honest kind of business, or to the criminal world. Stanislav Markelov belonged to neither category. His colleagues spoke of him as a man of principle, a strong and tough lawyer, and stressed that he always acted within the law.    

Who had an interest in his death?

The investigators look for a motive in cases like this. Of course, people's first reaction was to link the murder of the Kungayev family's lawyer to the release of Yury Budanov. This seems the obvious version. Elza Kungayeva's father, Visa Kungayev, said himself that he thinks Markelov's murder is linked to the Budanov case. He said that in their last telephone conversation Markelov told him he was receiving threats.

Markelov was indeed receiving threats. Human rights activists who knew him and journalists who followed the Budanov case seven years ago all confirm this. "Markelov was always turning up new evidence he'd managed to dig up through his investigations as a lawyer", recalled journalist Vladimir Dolin, who worked at Radio Liberty during the Budanov trial. "This infuriated the defendants. Budanov himself made threats, and so did Budanov's accomplice, Major Ivanov, chief of staff in Budanov's regiment. This happened on repeated occasions during the trial".  

Budanov himself called Markelov's murder "a vile provocation that has nothing to do with him" and said he thinks it is the work of people "who desperately desire to drive a wedge further between the Chechens and the Russians".

But I think that Budanov is one person who can go right to the top of the list of those with no interest in Markelov's murder. The last thing Budanov needs right now is to draw attention to himself. Many people sympathise with the former colonel, unpleasant though this fact is. It is possible that he had some fanatical admirer who decided to kill Markelov in broad daylight in the middle of Moscow. Indeed, Markelov was already attacked once in the Moscow metro on April 16, 2004. On that occasion he was beaten up and his briefcase containing important documents was stolen, but the attackers left his money and watch untouched and made it clear that they were taking revenge on him for his part in Budanov's trial. The assault case never made it to court. 

Markelov's other cases

Markelov was also the lawyer for Salikh Masayev, who said he had been abducted and held prisoner for four months in the private prison of President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov.  

But Markelov's professional interests ranged far beyond defending the Kungayev family and Chechens in general. He did travel often to Grozny, helping those who had suffered in the two Chechen wars, but he was also known as a lawyer for the anti-fascists. After the court hearing into the murder of anti-fascist Alexander Ryukhin in 2006, in which Markelov represented the victims' interests and obtained a guilty verdict against three of those accused of the murder, his name turned up on the fascist internet sites' ‘blacklists'. After the murder of Nikolai Girenko, an ethnographer and leading expert on racism and radical nationalism, killed in St Petersburg in 2004, Markelov was told that he would be next.   

The Mikhail Beketov case

In recent times Markelov was involved in the case against the gang of neo-Nazi Tesak. Incidentally, the various unofficial youth organisations were the main interest of Novaya Gazeta intern Anastasia Baburova. She followed all the main trials involving the neo-Nazis, including the Tesak case, and had begun working together with Markelov. If it turns out she was killed deliberately it would narrow the investigation down to the neo-Nazis, a brazen lot who, sadly, have become increasingly visible in Russia of late.

But Markelov could have got in the way of people far removed from nationalists or supporters of former colonel Budanov. Markelov was representing the interests of Moscow Region journalist Mikhail Beketov, who was campaigning against the destruction of the Khimki forest. The north of Moscow and the surrounding region were always considered to be in a good environmental situation with forests and parks that formed Moscow's protective green belt. Wild animals still live in these areas. But now these forests are being cut down under the pretext of infrastructure development, building homes for the elite, shopping centres, warehouses and highways. The Khimki Forest, for example, is to be destroyed completely to make way for the Moscow-St Petersburg toll road. This is high value land and the prospective profits from the planned projects could come to billions of dollars. 

On November 12, 2008, Mikhail Beketov, editor of newspaper Khimki Pravda, who opposed the authorities' plans to chop down the Moscow Region forests, was beaten almost to death. With head injuries, concussion, bruising on his face and a broken right leg he was taken to the Khimki Central District Hospital and then, in a coma, transferred to Moscow's Sklifosovsky Hospital, where his lower right leg and fingers were amputated and he underwent a complex operation to remove skull fragments from his brain tissue. Doctors say he is still in critical condition. Markelov was helping Beketov put together evidence of illegal destruction of the Moscow Region forests. Given that the Russian real estate market is one of the criminal business sectors (many construction companies have no qualms about turning to criminal gangs for help when there a millions of dollars at stake) it is possible that Markelov was murdered because of his involvement in this case, all the more so as Budanov's release just at this time made it easy to divert suspicion to others.   

The investigators will have the job of untangling all these threads. Much depends on their work now, but many have doubts about how well they will do their job. I don't know who will take on the task of representing the victim's interests, but whoever does so will clearly have to demand access to all of the material in the case in order to keep check on the investigation team's work.  The investigation into Markelov's murder cannot be left unsupervised, otherwise, like with the case of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya's murder, we risk ending up watching another court trial in which there is no killer and no one who ordered the killing.   

Exemplary punishment

The profession of lawyer has lost a lot of its prestige in Russia over these last years. Lawyers say that one of the reasons for this is the state's lack of respect for their profession. Criminal cases are opened against lawyers with principles and their offices are searched (all of the defence lawyers in the YUKOS case went through this). Now things have gone as far as murder. 

The murder of those who stand out from the crowd has become the norm in Russia today. I can see only one explanation for the audacity with which Markelov and Baburova were murdered in broad daylight in the middle of Russia's capital: it looks like a lesson to those who would dare to continue fighting for their rights and opposing injustice. It is a warning to them to keep their heads down and stay quiet.  We can only hope that rather than intimidate, this will mobilise those among Russia's lawyers who are involved in human rights activity. They include Karina Moskalenko (the Anna Politikovskaya case), Yury Shmidt (the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case), Yelena Liptser (the Platon Lebedev case), Anna Stavitskaya (the case of rehabilitating victims of Katyn massacre), Lyudmila Aivar (the Nord-Ost case), Yelena Lvova (the Vasily Aleksanyan case) and many of their colleagues.                             

Mariana Torocheshnikova is a journalist of the Moscow office of  Liberty Radio (Svoboda) specialising in human  rights issues and judicial matters