Five men were sentenced last month for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but the mastermind behind the killing remains unidentified, as the Washington Post pointed out in a June 10, 2014 editorial Misrule of law.
In 2003, I was working to bring Politkovskaya to the United States for a press conference. At the time, I happened to be part of the National Press Club's Publications Committee, who helped create the Record, the Club's internal newsletter. We were led at that time by legendary Club member John Metelsky.
During that time, I was in communication with an acquaintance who introduced me to Politkovskaya's work. Anna had already developed quite the reputation for herself in Eastern Europe with her reporting on the Chechen war for Russia's Novaya Gazeta, and my contact was working closely with her on some key projects in connection with that war. As my contact filled me in, it became apparent to me that Anna's work would find an interested audience in the United States.
Several months earlier, Anna had traveled to Los Angeles, but she was planning on a return trip to the United States to visit friends in New York. I began working with a professional point of contact in Europe to get Anna to add a leg to that U.S. trip, and to have her do a special appearance in Washington, DC at the National Press Club regarding her work in Chechnya. Through my European contact, Anna confirmed her desire to make the trip and the press conference was agreed to in general; I informed the Club's head of the Newsmakers Committee and he agreed to the idea. At that point we were simply on standby to get the specific dates of Anna's travel in order to schedule the event.
But it was not to be. In 2004, armed separatists seized control of the Beslan school in Russia, taking more than a thousand people hostage, most of them school children. As Russian police began to communicate with the separatists inside the school, the gunman insisted they would only speak with one person: Anna Politkovskaya. Anna was working in Chechnya at the time, but responded to the request to negotiate with the separatists, who wanted her there in person. After a couple of failed travel attempts that were blocked by Russian authorities, she boarded a plane and began the very long flight to Beslan. However, in the first leg of the flight, she fell horribly ill. At the first stopover of the lengthy flight, she cut her trip short and was taken off the plane and hospitalized. Doctors confirmed that she had been poisoned, and given the timing the conclusion was that she had been poisoned on the plane. Anna nearly died in the days that followed.
Meanwhile, the siege at Beslan ended tragically: in a climactic conclusion, 334 of the hostages were killed, and many more were badly injured.
Anna eventually recovered from the attempted poisoning, but she canceled all of her travel plans after that - including her plans to travel to the United States. We dropped the plans for the press conference at the National Press Club.
Three years passed. Very late one night in 2006, I received an anguished email from my contact with Anna, telling me the horrible news that Anna had been shot, murdered execution style just outside her apartment in Moscow. My contact observed that the timing was striking: it was October 7, which was Vladimir Putin's birthday. My contact wondered if this mysterious assassination was some sort of birthday present to Putin.
The story had not yet broken in the U.S., but I was able to locate and translate some foreign news websites to confirm the tragic development. (Remember, it was only 2005, online news has not yet matured to the state it is in today.) I immediately notified representatives from the Club's board of governors and officers at the Club about Anna's murder, and within days, the decision was made to give the upcoming 2007 John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press award posthumously to Anna.
I attended that award ceremony on July 16, 2007. It was a somber event. Another journalist, Fatima Tlis, also of the Novaya Gazeta, accepted the award in Anna's honor.
Fatima Tlis accepts award in Anna Politkovskaya's honor, July 16, 2007, at the National Press Club.
The day after the Washington Post editorial, National Press Club 2014 president Myron Belkind - with whom I worked on the Record back in those years - issued a statement calling for further investigation into Anna's murder "until the individuals who took out the contract on Anna's life are uncovered and prosecuted", stating that until then, "she will not have true justice".