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Europe

The mysterious fates met by Putin critics

© AFP/Tens of thousands turned out on March 1 to honour Nemtsov, who had been due to lead an opposition rally the same day.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-03-23

The murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov on Friday has once again highlighted the grim fates that have befallen several of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics, from radiation poisoning to imprisonment.

A day after tens of thousands of people marched in Moscow to honour Nemtsov’s memory, FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the more high-profile cases of Putin opponents who have met with cruel – and sometimes bizarre – ends.

Boris Nemtsov: Nemtsov was a leader of the Republican Party of Russia/People's Freedom Party, a liberal opposition group. He rose to prominence in 1997 after he was named deputy premier by Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, and was once seen as a possible Yeltsin heir. But that honour went to Putin in 2000, with Nemtsov serving as a deputy MP in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, during Putin’s first term.

As Putin tightened his grip, however, Nemtsov became a prominent anti-corruption activist and a vocal critic of Putin’s government. In February 2008, he co-authored a report entitled "What 10 Years of Putin Have Brought" that detailed how many of Putin’s friends and supporters had become billionaires under his rule while the majority of Russians suffered under growing social inequality and a failing pension system. Similar reports followed in subsequent years criticising Putin’s policies.

In a 2011 interview, Nemtsov called critics of Putin’s government “patriots”.

“I love Russia and want the best for her, so for me criticising Putin is a very patriotic activity because these people are leading Russia to ruin,” Nemtsov said in an interview republished Saturday on the Meduza news site. “Everybody who supports them, in fact, supports a regime that is destroying the country, and so they are the ones who hate Russia. And those who criticise this regime, those who fight against it, they are the patriots.”

Boris Nemtsov © (AFP)

Opposition activist Ilya Yashin told Ekho Moskvy radio that he last spoke with Nemtsov two days before his death. Yashin said Nemtsov was working on a report that alleges that the Russian “volunteers” who are fighting in eastern Ukraine are acting on direct orders from the Kremlin. Moscow denies providing material aid to the separatists.

In an interview with Russia's Sobesednik news website on February 10, Nemtsov expressed his enmity for Putin and offered a sombre prediction.

"I'm afraid Putin will kill me. I believe that he was the one who unleashed the war in the Ukraine. I couldn't dislike him more," he said.

Friends and supporters said he had received several anonymous death threats.

"Boris was worried. He said he was under threat but never wanted additional security. [He said] if they want to kill [me], they will kill [me],” Yashin said.

Nemtsov, 55, died late on February 27 after being shot in the back four times while crossing a bridge that leads to Moscow's Red Square, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin. A Ukrainian woman with him was unhurt and is now a key witness in the inquiry into his death.

Putin condemned the murder and said it could have been a contract killing. The Russian president will assume “personal responsibility" for the investigation into Nemtsov’s death, according to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Hours before he was killed, Nemtsov spoke on the radio to urge his fellow Russians to join him at a March 1 “anti-crisis” rally to protest against the war in Ukraine and Putin's rule.

In the wake of his death the opposition rally was re-dedicated as a march to honour Nemtsov’s memory.

 

Alexei Navalny: One of Putin's most prominent critics is Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and activist and the leader of the Progress Party. One of the leaders of the 2011-2012 anti-Putin protests in Moscow, the Wall Street Journal has called him “The Man Vladimir Putin fears Most”. In September 2013, he ran for the mayor of Moscow and came in second with 27% of the vote, losing to Putin appointee and incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

On the day Boris Nemtsov was killed a Moscow court upheld a 15-day jail sentence for Navalny, who is currently incarcerated. The ruling upheld a February 19 district court verdict that found him guilty of breaking the law by handing out flyers on the subway for the unauthorised March 1 “anti-crisis” opposition rally planned in Moscow. He is due to be released on March 6.

"We need to put pressure on the government to prevent political and economic crisis," Navalny told reporters, as police escorted him from the courthouse following his initial sentencing. "We all must take part in the anti-crisis march."

Alexei Navalny © (AFP)

Navalny, 38, has been arrested and tried several times, notably in 2012 when federal authorities accused him of embezzling a state-run timber firm. He was convicted in July 2013 and sentenced to five years in a labour colony – a move that prompted thousands to protest at the Kremlin – but was released from prison a day later and placed under a travel ban until the effective date of the verdict. In October, a regional court replaced the prison term with a suspended sentence.

In February 2014 both Navalny and his brother faced charges for allegedly overcharging the Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher and another firm and defrauding them of 51 million rubles ($1.5 million). Navalny was placed under house arrest and restricted from communicating with anyone but family.

In December, a Russian court handed Navalny a suspended prison term of 3.5 years while his brother Oleg was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, where he remains.

European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement that the charges had not been substantiated and the verdict "appeared to be politically motivated".

Oleg Navalny has never been active in the Russian opposition. Navalny and his supporters have said Oleg’s prison sentence appears to be aimed at punishing Navalny himself.

 

Mikheil Khodorkovsky: The 2003 arrest of Mikheil Khodorkovsky, once Russian’s richest man and head of the now-defunct Yukos oil giant, came at a time when the Kremlin was looking to curtail the power of billionaire oligarchs while consolidating control over Russia’s lucrative energy industry.

Khodorkovsky was seized at gunpoint after Russian commandos stormed a Yukos chartered plane on the tarmac. He was ostensibly detained as a witness but within hours he was charged with fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky was convicted in May 2005 and sentenced to serve a nine-year term at the Krasnokamensk penal colony.

Khodorkovsky was arrested just months ahead of a December 2003 parliamentary election and the March 2004 presidential election, his website notes, “thereby eliminating him from active engagement in the political arena”.

Some observers say Khodorkovsky’s real crime was breaking a tacit agreement that Russia’s emerging super-rich would restrict their activities to making money and stay out of politics. He famously angered the Kremlin by funding several opposition parties, including the Communists and the liberal Yabloko party, both fierce critics of the Putin leadership.

Mikheil Khodorkovsky © (AFP)

In March 2009 Khodorkovsky – and his Yukos partner and fellow accused, Platon Lebedev – went on trial again on new charges of embezzling oil assets worth more than $20 billion between 1998 and 2003 and laundering an additional $20 billion, in part through Yukos subsidiaries.

“The timing of the new charges, announced in February 2007, ensured that Khodorkovsky was behind bars during the December 2007 parliamentary election and the March 2008 presidential election,” his website said of the second trial.

Both men were convicted in 2010. Following a failed appeal in May of the following year, their imprisonment was extended to 2016.

Upon receiving a pardon on “humanitarian” grounds from Putin and released at the end of 2013, Khodorkovsky, 51, left Russia and has since lived in Switzerland.

In a February 28 online statement on Boris Nemtsov’s death, Khodorkovsky wrote: “They’ve murdered Boris. A hundred metres from the Kremlin. Right in the heart of a city inundated with thousands of policemen and special services personnel… Today, we all mourn.”

 

Alexander Litvinenko: Things took a strange turn back to the Cold War era in November 2006 with the death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, a specialist in counter-terrorism and organised crime. Litvinenko died in a London hospital on November 23, some three weeks after meeting with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun at the luxury Millennium Hotel and drinking tea poisoned with polonium-210.

CCTV footage presented at a British inquest showed that, shortly before meeting Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Kovtun visited the hotel men’s room, where significant levels of radiation were later found. Contamination was also found in the Millennium Hotel room that Kovtun shared with another man. Traces were later found on Lugovoi and Kovtun’s seats after their British Airways flight back to Moscow.

In a letter dictated on his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his murder. The Kremlin denies the claims.

Russia has also denied British requests to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun.

A photo of Alexander Litvinenko left at a memorial to him. © (AFP)

Litvinenko’s troubles started after a December 1998 press conference in which Litvinenko and four other FSB officers went public with allegations that the Russian intelligence agency had links to the mafia, was plagued by widespread corruption and had ordered a hit on Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested soon after. He faced charges in three subsequent criminal trials.

Acquitted in November 1999, he was re-arrested on charges that were subsequently dismissed in 2000. Later that year, he and his family were granted asylum in the United Kingdom, where he worked as a journalist and consultant for the British intelligence services.

During his time in London Litvinenko co-wrote a book financed by Berezovsky entitled “Blowing Up Russia: The Return of the KGB”, in which he accused the FSB of launching a false flag operation blaming Chechen terrorists for the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that killed 293 people. The bombings were used as justification for the launch of the second Chechen war and helped propel then prime minister Putin to the presidency the following year.

Litvinenko, 44, had also accused Putin of ordering the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see below).

A new public inquiry into his death began on January 27.

 

Anna Politkovskaya: A journalist for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper known for its critical coverage of the Kremlin, Politkovskaya, 48, was best known for her reporting from Chechnya. A fierce opponent of the second Chechen war and of Putin, she received numerous awards for her work. Her 2004 book, "Putin’s Russia", further documented her allegations of corruption in the military and judiciary as well as the crackdown on civil liberties under Putin.

Politkovskaya was shot dead on October 7, 2006, in the lift of her apartment block. Her death garnered immediate international attention.

Anna Politkovskaya © (AFP)

Five men were sentenced in June 2014 for her murder but it remains unclear who ordered the killing.

Four of the convicted men were Chechens from the same family. Rustam Makhmudov received a life sentence for firing the shots that killed Politkovskaya while his uncle, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, was jailed for life for planning her murder. Two of Makhmudov’s brothers and a fifth accused, a former police officer, were handed sentences of between 12 and 20 years.

The judge in the case, Pavel Melyokhin, called her murder a contract killing, saying $150,000 was paid to the accused by “a person unknown”.

Politkovskaya was one of 56 journalists killed in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Six of them were journalists from Novaya Gazeta.

 

Boris Berezovsky: Billionaire Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky was a one-time mentor of Putin’s but fierce disputes between the two men arose after the latter first ascended to the presidency in 2000.

Berezovsky was questioned in October 2000 in connection with a corruption and fraud investigation into the Aeroflot airline, which he headed in the 1990s. Berezovsky said at the time that the inquiry was politically motivated.

Boris Berezovsky © (AFP)

Soon after his testimony he applied for political asylum in the UK, which was granted in 2003.

A Russian court sentenced him in absentia to six years in prison in November 2007 after he was found guilty of embezzling nearly 215 million roubles from Aeroflot. Berezovsky called the prosecution a "farce".

A regional court again convicted Berezovsky in absentia in 2009, this time for his alleged involvement in embezzling 140 million roubles from an auto dealership empire between 1994 and1995.

Berezovsky, 67, was found hanging from a shower rail by a black cashmere scarf at his Surrey mansion in March 2013.

Reportedly suffering from depression and facing financial troubles, it was thought that Berezovsky likely committed suicide. Police found no evidence of foul play but the coroner recorded an open verdict on his death, citing conflicting expert testimony about the way Berezovsky was found hanging and saying he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he either took his own life or was killed.

 

Sergei Magnitsky: Sergei Magnitsky was an auditor at the Moscow offices of the London-based firm Hermitage Capital Management when he allegedly discovered evidence of a $230 million fraud perpetrated by Russian interior ministry and tax officials. The officials were thought to be using documents stolen in a raid on the offices of Hermitage Capital, which was one of the largest private equity firms active in Russia at the time.

After reporting his discovery to the Russian authorities, Magnitsky himself was detained in 2008 on suspicion of aiding tax evasion. Hermitage Capital founder Bill Browder, meanwhile, had his visa for Russia revoked and was deported.

Sergei Magnitsky © (AFP)

Magnitsky died in detention in November 2009 at the age of 37, of acute heart failure and toxic shock caused by untreated pancreatitis.

An investigation by Russia's presidential council for human rights found that he had been severely beaten while in custody, an allegation also made by his family.

Russia's then president Dmitry Medvedev (Putin was serving as prime minister) ordered an investigation into the Magnitsky case. Several prison officials, including the deputy head of the federal prison administration, were subsequently fired over his death.

But Russian prosecutors decided to try Magnitsky post-humously for tax evasion in a case dismissed as a "circus" by his family and by Browder, who was tried in absentia. In July 2013, a Russian court found both Magnitsky and Browder guilty, sentencing Browder to nine years in prison and banning him from doing business in Russia for three years.

Browder, who is now a British citizen and based in London, successfully lobbied the US government in 2012 to adopt the "Magnitsky list", which imposes a travel ban on the Russian officials involved in the alleged fraud and prevents them from keeping assets in the United States.

Moscow retaliated by banning American couples from adopting Russian children.
 

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, The New York Times, BBC, RFE/RL, REUTERS, The Guardian and AP)

 

Date created : 2015-03-02

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