MOSCOW — The mourners stood somber but shed few tears while huddling in freezing rain that fell on a grim Moscow cemetery Friday morning. They laid bright flowers at the freshly dug grave of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer slain this week by a masked gunman. Many of those in attendance also have feared for their lives.
The city's tight human rights community, numbering about 300, has become accustomed to death. Dozens of activists — journalists, lawyers, campaigners — have been killed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Survivors attribute the ongoing deaths to law enforcement’s failure to solve a single one of these cases.
“It's a blatant political killing,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition activist and former member of Russia’s lower house of parliament. “In Russia, sometimes we find the killers, but never the ones who ordered it.”
Markelov, 34, was gunned down on Monday in broad daylight. A masked gunman approached him as he was leaving a press conference, shooting him once in the head and killing him immediately, according to prosecutors. Images of Markelov's body, lying in bloodstained snow, covered newspaper front pages the next day.
The gunman then turned his weapon on Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old freelance journalist for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who attempted to run after the killer after he delivered his fatal shot. She died in the hospital hours later.
The killing was audacious, taking place at 3 p.m. on one of Moscow's busiest streets, in full view of the Kremlin. Yet prosecutors say they have no witnesses and the gunman managed to avoid all security cameras around the wealthy street.
Dozens of Markelov's friends said they had no hope the true killer — the person or group who ordered the killing — would be found. And they have conflicting theories as to who it could have been.
Markelov devoted his career to fighting for Russia's underdogs: the poor, those attacked by ultra-nationalists, Chechens, opposition activists. His enemies were undoubtedly countless.
“He would often say 'I'm tired,' and this is a 34-year-old man,” said Yury Shmidt, lead attorney for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was chief of the now-dismantled Yukos oil company, serving an eight-year sentence on charges he claims are politically motivated. “He didn't just do his work well, he took on other people's suffering as his own.”
Markelov, like so many of Russia's human rights workers, suffered for it. He received numerous threatening phone calls and text messages, with increasing frequency before his death. One of the last ones read: “You are a brainless animal. Again you crawled into the Budanov affair? Idiot, you couldn't find a calmer form of suicide?”
Two years ago, he was beaten unconscious in the Moscow metro. All of his documents — but none of his valuables — were stolen.
"He received many threats to his life,” said Lev Ponomaryov, Russia's leading human rights activist. “He came to me and said, 'I'm being threatened, what should I do? I told him to go the FSB or the police, I often do that myself.” Markelov did not take the advice and Ponomaryov did not know why.
But human rights activists here have learned to accept danger as a way of life.
Svetlana Gannushkina of Civic Assistance, a Russian human rights group that works with refugees, remembers walking down the street recently with a French colleague. “I got a call on my mobile, listened to what the caller said, and asked 'OK, is that all? Goodbye then.' My colleague asked, 'Was that your grandson?' 'No, it was someone threatening to kill me.' She was in shock, but that's how it is.”
Perhaps it's no surprise that Markelov did not seek official protection once the threats appeared. Many here don't trust the authorities, often suspecting them of collusion in the crimes and threats against them.
“We have to be careful,” says Gannushkina. “We don't talk about the people who give us information, whereas this is something we could do three or four years ago. We don't talk on the telephone, we don't use Skype. There are things we can only speak about in person, outside. It's like Soviet times.”
Competing theories as to who lay behind the murders of Markelov and Baburova have been swirling around Moscow. Some point to Yuri Budanov, the Russian army colonel who was paroled from prison last week after serving part of a murder sentence for the killing of one of Markelov's Chechen clients.
Others see the hand of those who attacked Mikhail Beketov, another Markelov client and the editor of a small Moscow newspaper who was fighting against a local development project. He slipped into a coma again on Friday, following a brutal November beating that left him nearly dead.
Still others say it could be the ultra-nationalists who Markelov opposed so loudly.
And many point to Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, though they refuse to go on the record saying so, fearing retribution.
In the past few months, a number of Kadyrov's enemies have met untimely deaths. Last week, a former bodyguard who fled to Austria after publicly accusing the Chechen president of systemic torture was gunned down in central Vienna.
In September last year, Ruslan Yamadayev, a member of a prominent Chechen clan that had challenged Kadyrov's authority, was fatally shot as his car stood at a traffic light near Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's White House.
And in the most well-known killing, Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading reporter for Novaya Gazeta, was gunned down in her central Moscow apartment building in October 2006. She had been investigating alleged corruption in federal reconstruction funds earmarked for Chechnya.
“Some people say maybe they're trying to scare us,” says Alexander Mnatsakanyan, a former journalist turned human rights campaigner. "It can't be so. All those who could have been scared already, are scared. The rest of us have the type of character to stay on in this work.”