A journalist renowned for her critical coverage of the Chechen-Russian conflict, Politkovskaya was found dead in her apartment building in Moscow. The Interfax news agency, citing police, said Politkovskaya was shot, and a pistol and four bullet casings were recovered.
Politkovskaya, 48, was a special correspondent for the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta and well known for her investigative reports on human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya. Igor Korolkov, a colleague, told the Regnum news website that Politkovskaya had been reporting on alleged torture in Chechnya.
In seven years of covering the second Chechen war, Politkovskaya’s reporting repeatedly drew the wrath of Russian authorities. She was threatened, jailed, forced into exile, and poisoned during her career.
CPJ had named Politkovskaya one of the world’s top press freedom figures of the past 25 years in the fall 2006 edition of its magazine, Dangerous Assignments. In an interview for that profile, Politkovskaya noted the government’s obstruction and harassment of journalists trying to cover the Chechen conflict and pointed to the deadly 2004 hostage crisis in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Politkovskaya was poisoned on her way to cover the Beslan school siege. After drinking tea on a flight to the region, she became seriously ill and was hospitalized–but the toxin was never identified because the medical staff was instructed to destroy her blood tests.
In February 2001, security agents detained her in the Vedeno district of Chechnya and accused her of entering without accreditation. She was kept in a pit for three days without food or water, while a military officer threatened to shoot her. Seven months later, she received death threats from a military officer accused of crimes against civilians. She fled to Austria after the officer emailed Novaya Gazeta, promising he would seek revenge.
When Politkovskaya covertly visited Chechnya in 2002 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, security officers arrested her, kept her overnight at a military base, and threatened her.
In October 2002, Politkovskaya served as a mediator between armed Chechen fighters and Russian forces during a hostage standoff in a central Moscow theater. Two days into the crisis, with the Kremlin restricting media coverage, Russian forces gassed the theater, and 129 hostages died. Politkovskaya delivered some of the most compelling accounts of the tragedy.
In 2009, a Moscow jury acquitted three suspected conspirators, the brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov. Another Makhmudov brother, Rustam, whom authorities identified as the gunman, was at large at the time. Investigators acknowledged they had rushed a poorly prepared case to trial. An appellate court later granted a re-trial.
The case moved forward again in 2012, when prosecutors indicted Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, a retired police lieutenant colonel, on charges that he helped orchestrate the murder. Authorities accused Pavlyuchenkov, head of surveillance for Moscow’s main police force in 2006, of ordering subordinates to follow Politkovskaya and determine her schedule and usual travel routes. The information was then passed along to the gang hired to kill the journalist, prosecutors said.
In December 2012, Pavlyuchenkov was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges that he was an accomplice in the plot. Family and colleagues were dismayed by the ruling, which came after a closed proceeding; lawyers for Politkovskaya’s family said they would appeal. Colleagues and relatives had hoped Pavlyuchenkov would identify the masterminds in open court.
Following the verdict, investigators said they considered exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev to be the masterminds–an assertion dismissed by Politkovskaya’s representatives as unfounded and politically motivated.
On May 20, 2014, a Moscow City Court jury found the five all three Makhmudov brothers, former officer Khadzhikurbanov, and Chechen underground leader Lom-Ali Gaitukayev guilty of planning, participating, and carrying out Politkovskaya’s murder. On July 9, 2014, the court sentenced Rustam Makhmudov, the convicted gunman, and Gaitukayev, the organizer of the crime, to life terms in prison. Two other Makhmudov brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim, convicted as the gunman’s driver and lookout, received 14- and 12-year jail terms, respectively. Convicted as an accomplice to the murder, Khadzhikurbanov received 20 years in prison. No one was tried as the suspected mastermind.
Anna Stavitskaya, the lawyer for Politkovskaya’s adult children, told CPJ, “My clients, Ilya and Vera Politkovsky, are convinced that the men sentenced indeed bear responsibility in the murder. But they are also convinced that the crime is far from being fully solved.” Frustrated with the course of the investigation, the journalist’s family applied to the European Court of Human Rights, which could intervene if it concluded local authorities did not carry out a proper inquiry.
On June 24, 2014, the Moscow City Court said it would hear Pavlyuchenkov’s appeal to postpone the start of his prison term because of alleged health problems, including mental health issues. (Pavlyuchenkov was being held in a detention facility pending appeals.) A court scheduled a hearing for his case on August 18, 2014.
Stavitskaya told the Russian service of the U.S.-Congress funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the family believed there were no grounds for postponing Pavlyuchenkov’s sentence. “There are many people who appeal for release or postponement of their terms in connection with their health conditions,” she said. “But their appeals are routinely rejected by the courts, even though oftentimes the crimes they are convicted of are of economic nature. Pavlyuchenkov was convicted of murder. He admitted his guilt and has been under arrest for a long time now. There are no reasons to believe that he cannot continue to be under arrest.”
Politkovskaya’s former colleagues at Novaya Gazeta said Pavlyuchenkov knew much more about the murder than he had revealed. They said the investigating authorities were aware of this but had not pressed him to speak. They said the official investigation was lacking in other ways as well: They said it had become clear a number of officers with the police’s elite secret department and the Federal Security Service (FSB) played roles in the murder, but none of the officers were brought to justice.
Karinna Moskalenko, one of the Politkovskaya family lawyers, said she was skeptical about the 2014 verdicts and sentencing. “The life terms given to two secondary culprits in the murder,” Moskalenko told CPJ, “are an attempt to avert the international attention away from the case, and from the fact that Anna Politkovskaya’s killing remains unsolved.”
On November 14, 2023, independent Russian news outlet Baza reported that President Vladimir Putin pardoned Khadzhikurbanov after he signed a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry to fight in Ukraine in late 2022. Khadzhikurbanov, whose 20-year prison sentence was set to end in 2034, was still fighting in Ukraine as of November 2023.
"Neither the victims nor [Novaya Gazeta’s] editors were informed about the murderer being pardoned, just as they do not inform us about their search for other murderers, namely those who ordered the killing,” a November 14 joint statement from Novaya Gazeta and Politkovskaya’s children, Ilya and Vera, said. “That is because they do not search for them. Because they cover them up."