Stanislav Markelov was a human rights activist in Moscow who had represented Anna Politkovskaya. He also represented the family of Elza Kungaeva, a Chechen woman killed by a Russian colonel- Yuri Budanov.
As a human rights activist, he was a frequent critic of alleged Russian war crimes in Chechnya and had also defended many families who accused the Russian military of brutality, torture, and rape. Budanov was sentenced to ten years in prison, but had his sentence reduced. At a news conference, Markelov announced plans to appeal the reduced sentence. Soon after leaving the news conference, Markelov was shot and killed within walking distance of the Kremlin. His girlfriend, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta, Anastasia Baburova, was also shot and killed.
The investigation blamed a nationalist neo-Nazi group in Russia called Russky Obraz and specifically one of their leaders Nikita Tikhonov, and his girlfriend who acted as a lookout. However, some noted that an assassination in broad daylight in the middle of Moscow near the Kremlin in an area highly guarded by the FSB using a silencer indicates the hit was well-planned and did not match the pattern of neo-Nazi groups. As an aside, Russky Obraz later rebranded itself the Right Wing Conservative Alliance. One of their leaders was later indicted by the Mueller probe as being part of the Internet Research Agency which allegedly interfered in the 2016 election.
Six months later, Natalia Estemirova, another human rights activist and journalist, was abducted from her home in Grozny and later found dead from gunshot wounds in a remote wooded area. At the time, she was rumored to be working on very sensitive cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya at the hands of the Russian military. Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, quickly blamed the Russian government for her death. President Dimitri Medvedev, in Germany at the time, condemned the killing and pointed the finger at the notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. According to several sources, Kadyrov extended a death threat inferring that he would always kill “bad people” and that Estemirova was a bad person. Despite the international attention the case garnered, no one was ever arrested.
Boris Berezkovsky is an interesting case. In the power struggle to succeed Yeltsin, of which Berezkovsky had become a strong supporter and member of his inner circle, he cast his lot against prime minister Evegny Primakov who had aspirations to become president. In the last two years of Yeltsin’s term, there was hostility between Yeltsin’s inner circle and Primakov’s supporters. Later, Berezkovsky was the subject of improper transactions in the privatization of the Russian airliner, Aeroflot. After talking to prosecutors, the charges were dropped, but not before Primakov was implicated in a plot to take down Berezkovsky which prompted Yeltsin to sack Primakov and replace him with Sergei Stepashin.
Although he was a strong supporter of Putin and was instrumental in Yeltsin replacing Stepashin with Putin, and had organized a political party with no platform other than loyalty to Putin, after assuming a seat in the Duma, he quickly had a disagreement with the new president when Putin proposed a law that would allow the Kremlin to replace elected governors throughout Russia. After resigning from the Duma, he used his media holdings to attack Putin over his refusal to accept foreign help in the sinking of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine that killed 118 sailors. As he was traveling abroad, the government reopened the Aeroflot case and requested his presence for questioning. Berezkovsky announced he would not be returning to Russia.
Berezkovsky landed in London where he sought political asylum in September 2003. He lived among other recent Russian exiles like Alex Goldfarb and Alexander Litivenko. At one time, he openly called for Putin to be deposed in a bloodless revolution. British authorities warned against such comments while in Britain and reminded him that Russia was still seeking his extradition to Moscow to stand trial on the Aeroflot charges.
His further actions while in exile caused some problems for US-Russian relations when he met Neil Bush, the brother of George W. Bush, in Latvia after Berezkovsky invested in an educational software company owned by Neil Bush. Swiss, Brazilian, Spanish and French authorities assisted their Russian counterparts in investigating his finances. And after a meeting in Latvia, he was banned from future entry into the country. Part of the reason was possibly because of combined White House and Kremlin pressure, while others claim it was at the urging of George Soros with whom Berezkovsky had a strained business relationship.
Six months after the death of Litivenko, Berezkovsky was forced to flee the country after Scotland Yard uncovered an assassination attempt. The would-be assassin was caught and found to be a Chechen, but possessing no weapon, he was simply deported after questioning and soon disappeared after arriving back in Russia. On March 23, 2013, Berezkovsky was found dead in a locked room with a ligature wound around his neck. Investigators could not determine if it was murder or suicide. Berezkovsky was in debt at the time of his death, selling off assets to pay enormous legal fees, and depressed. It was later reported that he sent a letter to Putin apologizing for the past and requesting a return to Russia. Some dismissed this as out of character, but his girlfriend at the time of his death, Katerina Sabirova, confirmed that a letter had been sent.
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