Thousands Attend Funeral Of Murdered Russian Journalist

MOSCOW, Russia -- Thousands have attended the funeral of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow, many fearing that with her they were also burying the last vestiges of media freedom in Russia.

Murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya

The line of mourners spilled out of the ceremonial hall at the Troyekurovskoye cemetery, where Politkovskaya lay in an open, flower-strewn coffin with a traditional Orthodox white ribbon around her head, where the hit-man who killed her aimed his final bullet.

The ceremony was attended by the Norwegian, US and Swedish ambassadors and a Who's Who of Russian human rights activists.

Police estimated that at least 3,000 people attended in all. But there was no sign of any high-ranking government officials.

"This is the funeral of a whole era," said Irena Lesnevskaya, a former head of the Ren-TV station known for her independent line.

"It was an era of conscience, truth and freedom and 10 years ago no one could have dreamt it would be crushed a decade later," she said.

Ms Politkovskaya, 48, was gunned down in what police said was a professional hit as she stepped from the lift of her apartment building in Moscow on Saturday.

A star reporter at the bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta, she was virtually the last Russian journalist who dared investigate atrocities in Chechnya and openly criticise President Vladimir Putin.

"This is a tragedy for Russia. They executed our conscience," said Yasen Zasursky, dean of Moscow state university's journalism faculty.

Vyacheslav Izmailov, another reporter at Novaya Gazeta, fought back tears as he told mourners that the frail-looking grey-haired mother of two had been like a "soldier at war".

The murder - the 42nd killing of a journalist in Russia since the Soviet collapse in 1991 and the 12th apparent contract killing of a journalist since Putin came to power in 2000 - has sparked deep concern throughout Europe and the United States.

Messages of grief and anger over her death continued to flow in from journalists and human rights activists in Russia as well as from Europe and the United States.

The outpouring was in dramatic contrast to the near silence from Russian officials, with the Kremlin limiting itself to a brief promise on Monday that "all necessary measures" would be taken to solve the crime.

The government was represented at the funeral by the deputy culture minister, a Kremlin official told AFP.

Putin challenged

Ahead of the funeral, the Russian Union of Journalists challenged Mr Putin in an open letter.

"We would like to be sure that you, as the guarantor of our constitutional rights and freedom, will take the investigation of this monstrous crime under personal control," the letter said.

"We are convinced that our readers, viewers and listeners, and your government ... need full and open information about this crime and about the social-political situation that made it possible."

The family of Paul Klebnikov, a US journalist murdered in still unresolved circumstances in 2004, warned that the killing had worrying implications.

"As long as journalists are not able to freely carry out investigations, Russia cannot be considered a truly free country," Mr Klebnikov's brother Michael said in a statement.

As international condemnation of the killing continued, French President Jacques Chirac sent a letter to Ms Politkovskaya's children condemning her killing and saying that everything should be done "to ensure that justice is done and that the assassins are found and punished".

"The odious assassination of your mother, Anna Politkovskaya, has deeply moved me as it has moved all the French and all defenders of press freedom," Mr Chirac said.

Bulgarian national radio urged people to defend the freedom of the press by lighting candles in the Russian church in Sofia.

In Ukraine, several dozen protesters placed candles outside the Russian embassy in Kiev as well as its consulate in the western city of Lviv.

They carried photographs of Ms Politkovskaya and placards that read "Putin assassin" and "The Kremlin has killed freedom".

Russia's prosecutor general has taken personal control of the investigation, but the outspoken Novaya Gazeta says it is undertaking its own enquiry and also offering a reward of almost a million dollars for information.

On Tuesday, the mass-market daily Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the assassin had at least three or four accomplices.

"They were all filmed by different cameras and look suspicious to the investigators," the newspaper said. "Four or five people were in this group: two men and two women."

The newspaper did not give the source of the information, but said that one of its own journalists had happened to be near the scene of the crime and was being questioned as a witness.

According to the daily, one man was waiting in the staircase to Ms Politkovskaya's apartment in case she took the stairs, not the lift.

When the doomed journalist entered her building, followed by the trigger man, a woman stood guard by the door to the street.

Two other accomplices waited in the get-away car, the newspaper reported.

Source: AFP