Murdered Russian reporter's interview with Press Gazette

Five years ago Press Gazette interviewed Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered on Saturday.

Back then she had already established a reputation for her shocking reports from Chechnya where she described atrocities committed at the hands of Russian troops.

That was before she was mysteriously posioned two years ago, on her way to cover the Beslan seige.

Her murder on Saturday has prompted international outrage amid fears that she was killed to stop her courageous reporting for newspaper Novaya Gazeta. 

Here is the 2001 Press Gazette interview by Ian Reeves:

"Stories so horrific that one’s hand refused to jot them down.” This is how Anna Politkovskaya’s describes the plight of villagers in Chechnya who were being captured, tortured and killed by Russian troops in a remote region of the war-torn country.

But what the Russian journalist didn’t know when she set out to investigate the harrowing accounts of about was happening to these people, was that she would find out that they were true in the most terrifyingly real way possible.

Politkovskaya’s Moscow-based paper, the Novaya Gazeta, has a fiercely defended reputation for independent journalism. So when she was given accounts of the plight of 90 families in Khottuni, its editorial board would not allow publication of the article without the facts being verifed independently. And frightening stories they were.

Russian troops were making regular sorties into the local villages and performing what what is known as “Achistka” — literally a cleaning-up operation. The idea is they would look for Chechen fighters hiding among the civilian population, but in fact they were clearing out the houses, stealing and pillaging the local population. When there was nothing left to take, they would take away the male members of the family and effectively hold them to ransom.

While held, these men — and sometimes women — were being subjected to brutal torture. In many cases they would be held for up to two weeks in a shallow pit, covered with heavy logs so they could not stand upright. They would be beaten with bottles and have their fingernails pulled out. Many women were raped.

Then there were the “children’s mittens” — the fingers of one hand were attached to the end of a live electrical cable, whose other end was attached to the fingers of the right hand. Live current was passed through the cables.

To investigate these terrible tales, Politkovskaya was given clearance to visit the region in February.

The local military commander, a man of some humanity, took her on a tour of the area and she saw clear proof of what the villagers had told her, although he explained that the pits were only for holding Chechen rebels and not local villagers.

“He was considerate and held my elbow to stop me falling into the pit. It looked exactly as it was described. It was clear that the prisoners had to urinate and defecate in the pit too,” she says.

But Politkovskaya was quickly presented with even more compelling proof that the villagers had not been making up their accounts.

Within minutes of her visit to the pit, another group of soldiers approached. She was marched into the middle of a field for more than an hour.

“Then an armoured vehicle arrived filled with armed fighters. They seized me, pushed me with their rifle butts and took me away.”

She won’t go into the full details of what happened over the next few days, other than to say they were “disgusting” and “utterly obscene”.

But she says: “My tormentors couldn’t have imagined they were providing me with the key proof that everything the Chechens had told me about torture and manhandling was true.”

Her captors found the pictures of her children and told her in graphic detail what they would do to them.

A lieutenant colonel switched on “what he imagined was romantic music” and made it clear what she’d have to do to expect a “favourable outcome”.

She refused. “Then he looked as his watch and said, ‘Let’s go. I’m going to shoot you’. He took me out of the tent. It was pitch dark. We walked a short distance and he said, ‘Ready or not, here I come’. Suddenly there was a terrible racket, screeching and flames.” A mortar had been fired right next to her.

Visiting London last week as part of events to mark World Press Freedom Day, Politkovskaya says the fear still hasn’t left her.

“Forget? No. There’s no getting rid of it. The most hopeless moment is when you realise there’s nothing you can say or do to change the course of events,” she says.

“That night, it seemed that nothing could save me. But in the morning an officer walked in and said, ‘it appears that you’re a celebrity’.

“Only after I came back did I find out what had saved me. Apparently, when I was arrested by the military, local residents a few hundred metres away saw what was happening. What they did was truly heroic. They walked through several military checkpoints to the nearest phone.”

Eventually they got through to the Moscow office of the paper, which was able to act quickly to put pressure on the authorities.

Given her story, it is hardly surprising that there are very few journalists still working in Chechnya. Many disappeared during the first war there, but now Politkovskaya believes the military simply try to frighten the ones left — like her and Andreas Babitsky who was imprisoned last year.

“We consider that what they’re doing is trying to frighten us. The military always say the same thing. They said the same to me and Babitsky. ‘If you work with us then everything will be all right for you. Don’t have anything to do with the civilian population.’”

And it’s not just on an individual level. Her paper, which sells 700,000 copies twice weekly, is constantly finding itself under threat because of its critical coverage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s methods — particularly in Chechnya.

Much of this pressure is brought to bear through leaning on advertisers. For example, in the recent conflict between Russian broadcaster NTV and the Government, Novaya Gazeta supported the journalists.

Subsequently, various advertisers were told to withdraw their ads on pain of being closed down. So they had no choice but to cut off their contracts.

The tax inspectorate also has an effective way of hampering the paper’s business — making constant checks on the books. All year, a tax inspector has sat in Novaya Gazeta’s offices from morning to night checking tax returns, effectively paralysing the accounts department.

But despite this, and all that has happened to her, Politkovskaya remains sanguine about the journalist’s role.

“That’s our conscious choice. We’re not children. Each person understands the level of the risks they are taking both in their career and their personal life.”

Anyway, she says, the situation is never completely black and white — there are good and bad soldiers just as there are good and bad Government ministers.

She was standing in a square in Grozny a few weeks after her article about the camps had been published. An officer came to her said: “I’ve read your work, and I’d like to talk to you.”

But then a general approached: “I would like to shoot you for what you’ve written. You’re more dangerous for us than an atomic bomb.”

Politkovskaya shrugs.

“All I do is write. I think this is a big exaggeration of the work of a journalist.”

 IFJ calls killing "a shocking outrage"

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