Prominent Russian human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was killed Monday afternoon, shot point-blank in the head, police say, as he walked to his car just a mile from the Kremlin. Markelov, 34, had just given a press conference in which he had announced he would continue to fight the early parole of Yury Budanov, a decorated tank commander who had admitted to and was convicted of the strangling death of an 18-year-old Chechen woman in 2000. Anastasia Baburova, 25, a freelance journalist for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper covering the Budanov case, was also shot as she walked with Markelov; she later died of her wounds in the hospital, said Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the paper.
The double murder was bold even by the standards of Moscow, a city that has become used to assassinations over the past few years. "This murder shows that political murder [has] become the decisive factor in Russia's social life, and the use of force the main argument against a personality," Sergey Mitrokhin, head of the liberal Yabloko Party, said in a statement. The hit on Markelov, the second such high-profile assassination in the capital's center in five months, "casts us back to the 1990s," Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the State Duma's Security Committee, told journalists. (See the top 10 crime stories of 2008.)
Markelov was the head of the Rule of Law Institute, a human-rights group, and had made many enemies over his career from Chechen warlords and the Russian military to neo-fascists and nationalist organizations. He had worked closely with Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya before she was murdered in 2006 and had recently begun to look into the circumstances behind the November attack on journalist Mikhail Beketov, a beating that left Beketov in a coma for two weeks and resulted in the amputation of a leg and some fingers.
But what really put Markelov in the spotlight was his representation of the family of Elza Kungayeva the 18-year-old Chechen woman whom Budanov had strangled in his quarters in March 2000 just as Russia's second war in Chechnya was beginning. The Budanov case became a symbol for the thousands of human-rights abuses committed by both sides in Chechnya. Budanov served part of a 10-year sentence but was paroled for good behavior and released last Thursday. At the news conference just before his death, Markelov said he might file an appeal against Budanov's early release to the European Court of Human Rights.
That's probably why he was killed. "We are looking into every possible motive, but the main one is linked to the profession of the victim," said Anatoly Bagmet, the head of the Moscow bureau of the Federal Investigative Committee.
After the slaying, Visa Kungayev, the father of the murdered Chechen woman, said Markelov had called him on Friday to tell him he was being threatened. "The first minute of the conversation, he said that people were calling his house, threatening him, threatening to kill him if he did not stop working on the Kungayeva case," Kungayev said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Although investigators acknowledge that the murder in broad daylight on a busy street means the killing was probably a professional contract hit, Vladimir Markin, an investigative-committee spokesman, on Tuesday said the killer could have been a "lone criminal" opposed to Markelov's position, Interfax reported.
Budanov gave his condolences to the families of the slain on Tuesday. A statement by his lawyer asserted that the former colonel who has become a hero in nationalist circles had nothing to do with the killing.
Budanov's release sparked protests across Chechnya. On Tuesday, hundreds gathered in Grozny, the Chechen capital, to mourn the murders. Though Chechnya has recently experienced an economic rebound of sorts, the general instability of the region has reached far beyond the borders of the small republic. Just five months ago, Ruslan Yamadayev, the head of a leading Chechen clan opposed to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, was gunned down while waiting at a red light in front of the British embassy in central Moscow. A week ago, Umar Israilov, a former Kadyrov bodyguard, was shot to death in Vienna.