: On the first anniversary of the murder of crusading Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, of the Russian human rights group Memorial, tells a harrowing story about Politkovskaya’s confrontation in Chechnya with the notorious Sergey Lapin, a police official responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of Chechen civilians. She received the first annual award commemorating Politkovskya’s work from the international human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) in London October 5.
They met in November 2003–the famous journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the policeman Sergey Lapin–in a tumbledown court building that was part of the Oktyabrsky District Court in Grozny. He was accompanied by a strong, heavily armed and camouflaged escort composed of several armored personnel carriers (APCs), which surrounded the building. She was with several of her friends, each of whom had suffered in one way or another at the hands of Lapin and his associates. He was on trial, and the very fact that this had actually happened was largely due to Anna. Thanks to her efforts his name was soon to be known to the whole world. To his victims he was known by the nickname Cadet.
In September 2001, Anna had met the Murdalov family, whose only son, Zelimkhan, had disappeared. Paradoxically, the building where he’d disappeared was occupied at the time by a multiservice team of police officers from the Federal District of Khanty-Mansijsk in the north of Russia.
At the time, Chechen police were considered incapable of maintaining law and order in Chechnya and (in addition to local police divisions in each of the districts) parallel divisions had been set up, staffed with police officers from other Russian regions. The “Khantys” moved into the building (a boarding school for deaf children, who had been placed elsewhere) in January 2000. In January 2001, they dragged 26-year-old Zelimkhan Murdalov into it. As it later transpired, he was tortured and tormented for several hours in an attempt to turn him into an informant. Then, while he was in a semi-conscious state, he was thrown into a cell. The following morning, the dying Murdalov was dragged out again. That was the last time anyone saw him. (He was to be their last victim.)
How many other corpses they had taken out of the building, that year, they would probably find it difficult to recall themselves. But it is clear that dozens had disappeared inside the boarding school and in the vicinity. This death factory was stopped by Zelimkhan’s parents, who fought to find out the truth about their son’s fate despite the threats and hostility of those who were supposed to assist them. Shocked by the despair of Zelimkhan’s mother and impressed by his father’s resolve, Anna wrote an article, later to appear under the headline “The Disappearance,” in which she named Sergey (Cadet) Lapin as one of the culprits for the first time. When witnesses began to “talk,” in her articles, the horrific details of what Lapin had done in regard to various detainees sent shivers down many readers’ spines.
Immediately, Anna’s newspaper received a letter in which Lapin threatened the journalist with retaliation. The letter was passed on to a prosecutor to deal with, while Anna turned her attention to the Murdalov family, who were in obvious danger. The family lived in the two rooms still standing in the ruins of their house, from which, through the holes left by bullets and shells you could glimpse the APCs as they passed by. From the street you could also see right into the Murdalovs’ house, but it was in that house that Anna stayed on her several visits to Chechnya.
No, she was not reckless. She was well aware of the gravity of the situation, particularly when she learned, in March 2002, that the interservice police detachment from Khanty-Mansijsk was coming back to Chechnya. Her fears were not unfounded–one day a car without a license plate arrived at the Murdalovs’ house. Masked gunmen came in and warned the family that they should take care, as the Khantys were around. This was not an idle warning. Some people did break into the house in the middle of the night soon after that, but then left saying that they had the wrong address.
But it would have been impossible to mistake the house, as it was the only one still standing on the entire block. The situation was clearly becoming too dangerous, and Anna succeeded in getting Zelimkhan’s mother, Rukiyat, and his sister, Zalina, out of Russia. By then, they had managed to achieve the unimaginable, in pursuing justice. The main suspect in the case involving Zelimkhan Murdalov, Sergey Lapin, had been detained and brought to Grozny. Everyone thought that what had happened to Zelimkhan would soon be revealed, and the culprits would stand trial. Anna, too, was called up to the office of the Chechnya prosecutor. She was, after all, a victim of Lapin’s intimidation as well.
This time she had come to Chechnya on an official visit. She was supposed to spend the night in the safety of the prosecutor’s office–a “portacabin” in the ruined city; this was considered the height of luxury, because it had running water. But that night, February 28, 2003, proved in reality to be one of the most dangerous and harrowing of her life. She at first spent several hours waiting in the street for Chechnya’s prosecutor, Vsevolod Chernov, and the investigating officer, Ignatenko, to find the time to talk to her. This was followed by an interrogation, which lasted well into the night. Then the investigating officer ordered that she be escorted out of the building. It was by then the middle of the night. A few days before her visit, in the very same place, a man had disappeared in plain daylight, right in front of the prosecutor’s office and the FSB building. Anna knew about that. One can only imagine what she felt at the time. She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all day, nor even had access to a toilet. She was not allowed to call her newspaper, and none of her friends at the time had a telephone. This was not the first time that her trust in the authorities could have proved tragic.
After that, she stayed only with friends. I was always afraid when complete strangers approached her in the street to talk to her. But she was not afraid to stay with me in my flat, even though there was no glass in the windows and the door had been broken down several times by the Federals (the Russian Army) and looters, and was no thicker than an eggshell. My neighbors knew when she came to visit, but there were no traitors among them. Their thoughtfulness was stronger than any lock.
Lapin did not spend long in detention. The prosecutor found him to be a low-risk case, and he was released into his own custody. Immediately after his release, the thirty most important documents relating to his case mysteriously disappeared. Had it not been for Anna’s angry articles, the case would have been hopelessly lost. But Anna managed to publish copies of the disappeared papers, and then several of them oddly turned up later in the prosecutor’s office.
So time passed, and it was autumn 2003 before Cadet’s trial finally got started. To begin with, he used a variety of pretexts not to turn up. The judge did not dare issue a warrant for his arrest while the prosecutor was, in fact, acting in his defense. When he did finally appear, it looked as though his many guards, armed more heavily than the court officers, were about to arrest the court. That was the moment when Anna and Cadet finally looked each other in the eye. She looked straight at him, but he kept averting his eyes, unsure of himself in her presence, even when protected by armed bodyguards.
Yet when the judge finally ordered the officers of the court to put handcuffs on him a year and a half later, at one of the hearings, Anna was not there. The situation in Chechnya had become too dangerous for her, and her friends had asked her to stay away. Her editor also stopped her from going there. She felt very hurt, and there was a bitter exchange between them. She had worked so hard on this case, had found Stanislav Markelov, the only lawyer in Moscow, who agreed to go to Grozny, had persuaded Amnesty International to pay his fees because the Murdalovs did not have the money to do so, and had even got all the Russian TV channels to broadcast the trial. Thanks to her efforts, Amnesty International had launched a worldwide campaign urging Vladimir Putin to bring Cadet to justice. Finally, the judge pronounced the sentence–Eleven years for torture and humiliation–but Anna only learned about it from the lawyer.
Disappointment? Frustration? This was only the beginning of it. Lapin should have been tried together with his bosses, who had managed to escape justice completely and were sheltered in the comfort of their homes. In the meantime, the ghosts of their victims cried out for justice. Finally, an international search warrant was put out for them. They remain on the “wanted” list. Anna’s killers have been so much faster.
Anna was murdered on October 7, 2006. On October 26, the Supreme Court overturned Cadet’s conviction. Was this a coincidence? There have been too many coincidences in this case, I think; so convenient for the perpetrators.
A new trial is now going on in Grozny. Once again we hear witness statements about the events in the cells of the Oktyabrsky police station, which make our hearts miss a beat, and once again we have to persuade witnesses to come forward despite possible repercussions. So who are the winners? There are none. Yet thousands of young people’s lives have been saved, even though they may never get to know it. The same way Zelimkhan never got to know the consequences of his untimely death.
The building where people were maimed and murdered is no longer there. They pulled it down, allegedly to build a new boarding school for the deaf. This was over a year ago. The deaf children are still making do with a few small rooms in a private house, while the wasteland that was once the boarding house is overgrown with weeds. There are those with a vested interest in keeping this Russian Abu Ghraib forgotten–so that they can once again kidnap and torture. Our task, however, is to uncover their deeds and to fight them. Anna was at the forefront of this work for many years.
She is no more. Now it is up to us to continue her work.