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Putin faces 'murderer' taunt as journalist is buried

Hannah Cleaver and Adrian Blomfield / London Telegraph | October 11 2006

Angry protesters greeted Vladimir Putin as he flew into Germany yesterday for a two-day official visit that has been overshadowed by the weekend murder of his most prominent critic in the Russian media.

Arriving in Dresden, the city where he served as a KGB spy in the 1980s, the Russian president was heckled by 2,000 demonstrators furious over the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead by a gunman outside her home on Saturday afternoon.

As Mr Putin got out of his limousine, one man shouted: "You're a murderer, you're not welcome here." The killing of Mrs Politkovskaya, who was internationally admired for her exposes of Russian military atrocities in Chechnya, forced the Russian leader onto the defensive during a trip that was meant to focus on energy and growing economic ties with Germany.

Two hours after the reporter was buried at an emotional funeral in Moscow, Mr Putin publicly acknowledged her death for the first time at a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

Though he described the murder as "a dreadful and unacceptable crime", Mr Putin sought to reject allegations of possible Kremlin involvement in it by downplaying the significance of Mrs Politkovskaya's career.

"She was a journalist who was critical of the current authorities in Russia," he said. "But although she was well-known among human rights groups and abroad, she had minimal influence on political life in Russia."

With international concern mounting that the murder of Mrs Politkovskaya represented perhaps the most disturbing development yet in a crackdown on Russian media freedoms, Mrs Merkel said she had raised her worries in talks with Mr Putin.

"The Russian president has again made it clear that everything will be done to clear up this murder," the chancellor told reporters.

Surrounded by fellow journalists, opposition leaders, western diplomats and relatives, Mrs Politkovskaya was laid to rest at a sombre service in a Moscow suburb.

In pouring rain, over a 1,000 mourners filed past an open casket where a journalist hailed as one of the bravest of her generation lay, a white ribbon tied around her head in accordance with Orthodox custom.

A mound of flowers grew up around her coffin as each mourner laid an even number of carnations and roses around the bier. Not all were dignitaries. Many were just ordinary people whose lives she had touched by reporting on the war in Chechnya long after many of her colleagues had turned to other subjects — either because they were afraid of the risks involved or because, as anti-Chechen sentiment grew, it was no longer fashionable to do so.

"I felt it was my duty to come and pay my respects to a journalist who was not afraid to write the truth," said Anatoly Petukhov, 70, whose son was killed in Chechnya.

Mrs Politkovskaya dedicated as much of her time to exposing the brutal conditions in which Russian soldiers lived as she did to the plight of Chechen civilians whose lives were ruined by the war.

Yet there was no senior level representation from the Kremlin, a fact that confirmed the fears of many present that the subtle repression of recent years had evolved into something much more sinister.

"Russia is becoming an authoritarian and corrupt country," said Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko party. "This killing opens a new phase when the physical elimination of political opponents becomes possible." Fear was as much an emotion as grief for many; a belief that with the death of one of so very few prepared to criticise the Kremlin the last vestiges of freedom in Russia had also passed.

"I did not know Anna personally but when I heard of the murder I got very scared," said Alexander Glushenko, a nuclear physicist who recently wrote a book about his experiences of containing the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. "I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that now anyone who writes the truth can be killed."


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