RUSSIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Moscow's campaign of kidnapping and murder
, November 8, 2008
The Kremlin is suspected of being behind a recent attempt to poison a high-profile Russian human rights activist working in France. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.French police are currently investigating whether a high-profile Russian human rights activist may have been a victim of a poisoning attempt in Strasbourg, northern France, on October 13 this year.
Karina Moskalenko, a lawyer, was due to travel to Moscow to take part in the trial of three suspected accomplices in the 2006 assassination of journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya. However, she and her husband and three children suddenly fell ill with nausea and headaches.
Police investigators found traces of toxic mercury in her car. Mercury can damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, immune and nervous systems, and even lead to death.
In recent years, Moskalenko has brought several cases against the Russian authorities before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. She has so far won 27 cases and has some 100 more pending.
The poisoning by mercury of Moskalenko has disturbing similarities with the poisoning by polonium of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time client of hers, who fell fatally ill and died in Britain in late 2006.
Just before Moskalenko's recent poisoning, a Moscow newspaper, part-owned by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Novaya Gazeta
, reported that Russia's security agencies were regularly hiring professional assassins to murder people targeted by the Kremlin.
The newspaper's military affairs editor, Vyacheslav Izmailov, outlined a series of killings, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, of Kremlin-designated enemies who have been assassinated both within and outside Russia.
Izmailov described the use of killers for hire as now being "an ordinary practice of the special services".
This means that the Kremlin has returned to dictator Joseph Stalin's modus operandi
. "Death solves all problems," Joseph Stalin once famously declared. "No man, no problem." His most famous victim was former Red Army chief, Leon Trotsky - his one-time political rival - who was assassinated in Mexico in August 1940.
Two years ago, the prize-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. Politkovskaya, a human rights activist and author of several books, including Putin's Russia
, had earlier survived a kidnapping.
Izmailov said that because several assassination victims had been Chechen militants, many Russians, and some Westerners, have accepted the ongoing paid killings as legitimate counter-terrorist operations.
Dzhokhar Dudayev, first president of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria (1991-96), which broke away from Russia, was killed in early 1996 in James Bond movie fashion. He was struck by two laser-guided missiles, while speaking on a satellite phone, after his location was detected by Russian aircraft.
Turpal-Ali Atteriyev, formerly chief of military intelligence in Ichkeria, was murdered while in Russian detention, as were Salman Raduyev, in 2002, and Lecha Islamov, in 2005.
Raduyev was serving a life sentence for his involvement in a high-level killing, while Islamov had been a rebel commander. In both cases, prison officials insisted their deaths were from natural causes.
"No one says that these criminals ought not to have been punished," said Izmailov. "But the story of their deaths graphically illustrates the practice [of official murders by the Russian security services]."
Izmailov listed other Chechen militants who were killed.
In May 2001, a Chechen leader, Magomed Kariyev, was reportedly shot in the Yasamal district of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Chechen refugee community immediately claimed that Kariyev had been assassinated by the Russian secret service.
In September 2003, again in Baku, Vakha Ibragimov - a businessman, gold-trader, former Ichkerian ambassador to the Taliban in Afghanistan and sometime adviser to Ichkeria's president - was shot five times and killed.
In February 2004, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, second president of Ichkeria (1996-97), was assassinated in Doha, capital of Qatar, when a bomb ripped through his vehicle. Although Yandarbiyev survived the blast, he later died in hospital. His 12-year-old son was seriously injured. In the same month, Chechen militant Katar Dozhebyl was killed in Moscow.
In November 2006, Movzadi Baysarov, a Chechen warlord and one-time special task unit commander with a Russian security agency, was gunned down in central Moscow.Radioactive polonium
However, in contrast to these assassinated Chechen militants, neither journalist Anna Politkovskaya nor former Russian security officer Aleksander Litvinenko - who was murdered in London in November 2006 by radioactive polonium-210 - could, by any stretch of the imagination, be classified as militants.
British police have determined that Litvinenko had met Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer who had earlier worked with Litvinenko in a private security service for Russian oligarch, media tycoon and politician, Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky had gained political asylum in Britain.
According to Izmailov, Kremlin-inspired killings were now an integral component of what he described as "a definite system" that has been developed by Moscow insiders to eliminate anyone designated an enemy of the government.
He said that the system was "connected not only with special operations beyond the borders of Russia", but also involved "extra-judicial sentences", which means these killings can be carried out even on those detained in Russian prisons and camps.
But murdering isn't the only method used to remove designated enemies.
"Russians and citizens of other countries who work for humanitarian missions in the North Caucasus are kidnapped," Izmailov said.
In August 2002, Arian Erkel and Kenneth Gluck, both working for the renowned Nobel Prize-winning French medical agency, Doctors without Borders, were kidnapped. Izmailov named several others who had suffered this fate.
Kremlin-inspired kidnappings of journalists and humanitarian workers have been deliberately aimed at persuading employers of these types of workers to withdraw from contested regions such as the northern Caucasus where the Kremlin wants to impose a news black-out.
About the lack of reporting of the Kremlin's campaign of murder, Izmailov observed:
"We can scarcely be guaranteed against more ... murders in the centre of Moscow, more mysterious deaths, strange kidnappings and executions without trial while we have not been able to have official investigations of all these and many other cases of such a flagrant violation of the law."
Launching such an investigation, he said, was not going to be easy because those who "carried out" these crimes were "still involved in carrying out others".- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance writer and historian.