The price of protest in today's Russia

Alexandra Szacka on the price of protest in today's Russia

A neighbour discovered Mikhail Beketov on November 13. He was lying unconscious, beside his house near Khimki, a suburb of Moscow.

File photo of Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov from June 2001. The editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, Beketov was brutally beaten in November 2008 and found unconscious near his home outside Moscow. ((Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press))

Covered in blood, his skull was cracked and his leg was fractured, those being just some of the wounds he had sustained. Nobody knows how long he was out there. He was taken to the local hospital.

Currently, he's in a coma. His leg and several fingers have been amputated due to frostbite.

A few days ago, he was transferred to another hospital because of the severity of his condition. But also because the first hospital had received a number of anonymous phone threats concerning Beketov.

"I 'm not sure he will make it," says his friend and fellow environmental activist, Mikhail Matveev.

Saving a forest

Beketov, 49, is a journalist, the owner and editor-in-chief of a local newspaper, Khimkinskaya Pravda, which has been critical of the authorities in Khimki. Beketov blew the whistle more than once on local officials and murky businesses.

His latest battle was to try to save a section of the Khimki forest where developers want to build a commercial and service centre, part of a future highway connecting Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The first threats came a year ago. In May 2007, his car was set on fire. Last summer, his puppy was shot dead by strangers in front of his neighbours' eyes. Then, a few weeks ago, he received a phone call. An unknown voice said: "You are targeted."  

To protest the brutal attack on Beketov, a small group of about a dozen people gathered last week in a square near the Kremlin on a cold November afternoon.

They wanted to deliver a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, alerting him to the Beketov case as well as to other, similar attacks on journalists and human rights activists recently.

"This brutality, this intimidation, has to stop," says Matveev. "We should have the right to voice our opinions and to protect our forests."

When I asked, who did he think was responsible, he answered without hesitation: "Local authorities linked to local developers."

At that point, the group of protesters was suddenly surrounded by more than 20 police officers. Only three were allowed to enter the presidential administration office at a time. Most of them just had to wait, while the police kept an eye on everyone.

Attacked with a syringe

Among those left outside to freeze was a young French women, a sociologist who has lived in Moscow for almost 10 years. Carine Clement, 38, runs the Institute for Collective Action, which connects activists and researchers concerned about rights for tenants and workers.

Carine Clement ((CBC) )

On November 13, the same day that Beketov's body was found, she was heading to a public meeting to discuss the current economic crisis when two young men approached her and stuck a syringe with some sort of liquid in it in her thigh.

"It was the third physical attack against me in two weeks," she said. She went to a hospital but so far no toxic substance has been detected in her body. She thinks it was simply aimed to scare her. "But next time," she says, "Who knows?"

She is absolutely positive that these attacks are linked to her actions against illegal construction and the violations of environmental and democratic norms in Moscow and its outskirts.

Movements such as hers are spreading very fast in Russia, she says, and they are not at all welcome by local authorities and the developers, who she suspects of being behind the attacks. "It can also be some fascist movements," she adds.

For Clement, it's clear these incidents are on the rise. What seems to have changed, she says, is that now the attacks are not only being perpetrated against specific political dissidents and intellectual leaders.

More and more ordinary people, who have become active by simply defending their fundamental rights, are currently being victimized.

Is she scared?

"I'm more careful now," she says, smiling and pointing to the young man who stands behind her. He is her bodyguard.

Men in the shadows

It is difficult to know exactly how many journalists and social activists have been attacked and murdered in Russia in recent years. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 47 Russian journalists have been killed in questionable circumstances since 1992. Of those that took place in the past eight years, 13 "bear the marks of contract hits," it says. 

Indeed, the attacks against journalists and activists continue even as the high-profile trial of those linked to the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was gunned down two years ago and who happened to be a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin and his protege, Chechen President Ramsan Kadyrov, is getting underway in the Russian capital, behind closed doors.

The Russian Interior Ministry, trying to reassure the public, said that the best Moscow investigators have been assigned to find those responsible for the brutal assault on Mikhail Beketov

In Politkovskaya's case, the investigation took two years. But those facing trial today are only small fry. The big fish, the main suspect who pulled the trigger, is still at large.

No need to say that those who ordered the killing will probably never be found.