MOSCOW — A masked assassin with a silencer on his gun crept up behind Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer with an insurgent spirit and a penchant for underdogs, and shot him dead in broad daylight on Monday. A freelance reporter with Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper was also killed in the attack.
Markelov had just given a news conference about Thursday's early release of Yuri Budanov, the former Russian colonel whose imprisonment for killing an 18-year-old Chechen woman riveted and polarized the country. Markelov was a lawyer for the Chechen family; he was fighting to get Budanov back behind bars.
Markelov was killed just half a mile from the Kremlin amid the bustle of a business day. His death shocked Moscow's tight-knit community of human rights groups and defense lawyers. The brazen strike, heavy with a sense of impunity, was reminiscent of the 2006 slaying of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
"A very simple and efficient mechanism to get rid of anyone they don't want in their way is in effect," said Svetlana Gannushkina, a lawyer with Moscow's Civic Assistance organization and a colleague of Markelov. "Anybody can be killed like this, in broad daylight, in the center of town. I think the plan was not only to kill a particular person but also to terrify the rest of society."
Media reports identified the journalist shot along with Markelov as Anastasia Baburova. She reportedly died on an operating table.
Markelov had been deeply embroiled in the Budanov case in recent days, lobbying angrily for the former officer to be sent back to prison. The lawyer had filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to block Budanov's release, and was also pushing for the former colonel to be tried anew based on evidence that Kheda Kungayeva had been raped before she was killed in 2000 in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, rare protests shook Chechnya, where Budanov was seen as a symbol of the largely ignored stories of torture, disappearance and rape of civilians during the two Chechen wars. In other corners of Russia, Budanov was regarded as a hero by some military and ultranationalistic circles.
Markelov had received death threats in text messages and a telephone call in recent days, said Vissa Kungayev, the father of the slain teen.
"He told me, 'Vissa, I am being threatened; they want me to drop the Budanov case and they said if I don't, they will kill me,' " Kungayev said by phone from Norway, where he fled with his wife and remaining children after his daughter's death.
"Some people say he was killed because he was conducting some other cases connected to Chechnya," Kungayev said. "But I am 100% sure he was killed because of my case."
In the Chechen capital, Grozny, the republic's human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, also linked the killing to the Budanov case.
"This is a bold and impudent murder related to Markelov's activity as a defense lawyer for the Kungayev family and his attitude to military crimes in Chechnya," Nukhazhiyev told the Interfax news agency.
Others were less certain.
"I don't have the slightest doubt that this was connected to his professional activities, but the horrible thing is that any group could be behind it," said Gannushkina, the fellow lawyer. "He worked on a lot of sensitive cases. This shot could have come from any direction you pick."
Markelov was also defending a Chechen man who accused Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, of detaining him in a secret prison. Kadyrov has denied the existence of the extrajudicial prisons, which have come up repeatedly in allegations gathered by human rights groups.
Last summer, after the man testified in court about Kadyrov's alleged secret prison, he disappeared. He still hasn't been found.
There were also reports that neo-Nazi groups in Russia had threatened to kill Markelov for his work defending people who opposed their activities, including members of the Antifa, or anti-fascist, movement.
Markelov had also begun an independent investigation into the severe beating of Mikhail Beketov, a newspaper editor and conservationist who was attacked late last year.
The federal prosecutor opened an investigation into Markelov's assassination, and police sources told Russian state news agencies that nearby security cameras had probably captured pictures of the killer.
"The investigation is analyzing different motives of the Markelov murder, including the motive concerned with his professional activity," Anatoly Bagmet, head of the Moscow investigation department, told Interfax.
Meanwhile, Kungayev vowed to find another lawyer and continue the struggle to put his daughter's killer back behind bars.
"I will see this case through to the end," he said.