Natalia Estemirova/ International Herald Tribune, 5 October 2007
GROZNY, Russia: They finally met in November 2003 – the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the policeman Sergei Lapin – in the tumbledown building of the Oktiabrsky District Court in Grozny. He was accompanied by a heavily armed and camouflaged escort of several armored personnel carriers. 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, a fact that was largely due to Anna. To his victims he was known by the nickname Cadet. Two years earlier, in September 2001, Anna had met the Murdalov family, whose only son, Zelimkhan, had disappeared. The building where he’d disappeared was occupied at the time by a team of police officers from the district of Khanty-Mansiysk in the north of Russia. Chechen police were considered incapable of maintaining law and order in Chechnya and 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 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.)
The police themselves would probably find it difficult to recall how many other victims they took out of the building that year. But it is clear that dozens 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, which appeared under the headline “The Disappearance,” in which she named Sergei Lapin, a.k.a. Cadet, as one of the culprits. When witnesses began to talk in her articles, the horrific details of what Lapin had done sent shivers down many readers’ spines.
Anna’s newspaper promptly received a letter in which Lapin threatened the journalist with retaliation. The letter was passed on to a prosecutor, while Anna turned her attention to the Murdalov family, which was in obvious danger.
The Murdalovs lived in the two rooms still standing in the ruins of their house. From the street you could see right into the house, but it was there that Anna had stayed on her several visits to Chechnya.
She was not reckless. She was well aware of the danger, particularly when she learned in March 2002 that the 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.
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. Lapin had been detained and brought to Grozny. Everyone thought that what had happened to Zelimkhan would soon be revealed, and the culprits would be punished. Anna was also summoned by the Chechnya prosecutor. She was, after all, a victim of Lapin’s intimidation as well.
This time she came to Chechnya on an official visit, and she was supposed to spend the night in the safety of the prosecutor’s office. But that night – Feb. 28, 2003 – proved to be one of the most harrowing of her life. First she spent several hours waiting in the street for the 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 the middle of the night.
A few days before her visit, in the very same place, a man had disappeared in plain daylight. Anna knew about that. One can only imagine what she felt at the time. She hadn’t eaten or drank 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. 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 Russian soldiers and looters.
Lapin did not spend long in detention. The prosecutor released him into his own custody. Immediately after his release, the 30 most important documents relating to his case disappeared. Had it not been for Anna’s articles, the case would have been lost. But Anna managed to produce copies of the lost papers.
It was autumn 2003 before Lapin’s trial finally got started. At the beginning, he used a variety of pretexts not to turn up. When he did finally appear, it looked as though his guards, more heavily armed than the court officers, were about to arrest the court. It was then that Anna and Lapin finally looked each other in the eye. She looked straight at him, but he kept averting his eyes.
When the judge finally ordered the officers of the court to put handcuffs on him a year and a half later, Anna was not there. The situation in Chechnya had become too dangerous for her; her friends had asked her to stay away.
Her editor also stopped her from going there. There was a bitter exchange between them. She had worked so hard on this case; she had found the only lawyer in Moscow who would agree to go to Grozny; she had persuaded Amnesty International to pay his fees, and she had even gotten Russian TV channels to broadcast the trial.
Thanks to her efforts, Amnesty International had launched a worldwide campaign urging Vladimir Putin to bring Lapin to justice. Finally, the judge pronounced the sentence – 11 years.
This was only the beginning. Lapin should have been tried together with his bosses, who had managed to escape justice. An international search warrant was put out for them.
Anna was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006. On Oct. 26, the Supreme Court overturned Lapin’s conviction. A new trial is now underway in Grozny. Once again we hear testimony 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 know it. The same way Zelimkhan never got to know the consequences of his untimely death. Anna too is no more. It is up to us to continue her work.
Natalia Estemirova, an activist with the human rights group Memorial, is the first recipient of the RAW in WAR Anna Politkovskaya Award for women human rights defenders in war and conflict. Distributed by Agence Global..