More than 1,000 attend vigil for murdered Russian journalist
Widespread shock and international calls for a full investigation
A crowd of more than a thousand people gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki on Sunday night in a peaceful candlelit demonstration arranged by the Finnish branch of PEN, the worldwide association of writers.
The people had come at short notice to honour the memory of the Russian writer and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of the country's policies in Chechnya, who was murdered in Moscow on Saturday. She was shot four times in the elevator of her apartment building, apparently in a contract killing.
Finnish politicians added their voices to a growing international concert of demands for a full investigation of the crime, which has raised new fears of the narrowing of press freedoms in Russia.
Tehtaankatu, the street on which the Russian Embassy is located, filled up at around 7 p.m. on Sunday night with grieving people carrying candles. Groups of friends and family members spoke in quiet tones one with another, if at all. There were no shouted slogans at what was a spare and deeply moving ceremony.
The silencing of the well-known dissident writer evoked grave feelings among the gathered crowd. Politkovskaya has been known abroad for her unstinting criticism of corruption and human rights abuses within Russia, and most particularly of the conduct of the war in Chechnya. The investigative journalist was regarded as a voice of truth in an increasingly stifled Russian press.
Her death was seen as a personal loss, but also a setback for Russia itself. Many expressed dismay and disbelief at the cheap price put on the head of those who tell the truth. The troubled cause of press freedom was widely seen as one indicator of how Russia is progressing on its path to democracy.
Many of the demonstrators were from Helsinki, but others had come from further afield, and the crowd included several familiar faces from the world of culture and politics, and many fellow-journalists. SMS messages had passed around late on Saturday night and Sunday morning advising people of the spontaneous protest. Similar vigils were held in Lahti, Tampere, and Turku.
Meanwhile, a concert of international demands grew in volume, calling for a full and speedy investigation of the killing.
As the current holder of the EU Presidency, Finland expressed on behalf of the Union its "deep regret" about "the killing in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, well-known journalist and defender of freedom of expression in Russia. The Presidency calls for a thorough investigation of this heinous crime and the bringing of its perpetrators to justice. On behalf of the European Union, the Presidency expresses its deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Anna Politkovskaya."
The US State Department also issued a statement, noting that the United States is "shocked and profoundly saddened by the brutal murder".
"The United States urges the Russian government to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation in order to find, prosecute, and bring to justice all those responsible for this heinous murder. The intimidation and murder of journalists - 12 in Russia in the past six years, including American citizen Paul Klebnikov on July 9, 2004 - is an affront to free and independent media and to democratic values."
"This is a crime that cannot and must not go unpunished", declared the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, and these words were echoed by the newly-appointed Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who issued the reminder that Politkovskaya's tireless work on behalf of human rights was also part of the struggle for a better Europe.
Speaking late on Saturday night, the Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (SDP), who knew the slain investigative journalist personally, expressed shock and disbelief.
"I am very shocked by this. I knew her and I knew her work. I knew that she was extraordinarily courageous, since her revelations, her outspoken comments and candour had brought her many enemies."
"The fact that this kind of murder can take place must put the credibility of the [Russian] government to the test. Now we shall see how well the Russian authorities can and wish to solve this crime and put the guilty persons on trial, wherever the evidence leads."
It is believed that Politkovskaya was planning to release an article on torture and the taking of hostages in Chechnya at the time of her murder, and this has fuelled speculation that the contract killing might have been ordered from the direction of the Caucasus, either as revenge by the Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov or more obliquely by those who wish to cast suspicion on Kadyrov.
Demonstrations in support of Politkovskaya also took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Russian newspaper claims Russia could have abducted Chechen representative Ahmed Zakayev in Helsinki (1.2.2005)
A one-woman peace movement (17.12.2002)
Anna Politkovskaya (Wikipedia)
Politkovskaya was one of Time Europe´s Heroes in 2003