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Shortly before his poisoning, ex-spy accused Putin of involvement in Russian journalist's murder

by Ted Lipien Logo and Link to Home Page Free Media Online, Dublin, CA, December 5, 2006 -- Shortly before he was poisoned by a radioactive substance polonium-210, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko had accused President Putin of ordering the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She had been killed by an unknown assailant in Moscow in early October. Just before his own death from poisoning in London in late November, Mr. Litvinenko accused Mr. Putin of also being responsible for ordering his murder.

None of these accusations has been substantiated. Most Western intelligence analysts doubt that Mr. Putin would have ordered assassinations of his critics. Analysts do not exclude, however, the possibility that current or former members of Russia's intelligence and security services may have been involved in these murders. No firm evidence has been produced to support these claims.

In a radio interview with the Voice of America Russian Service in early October following the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Mr. Litvinenko, who described himself as a close friend of Ms. Politkovskaya’s, told VOA that he had seen her in London shortly before her death. According to VOA's English transcript of the interview, Mr. Litvinenko was emphatic in stating his belief that Mr. Putin had been responsible for Ms. Politkovskaya's murder: "There is no doubt," he was quoted by VOA as saying, "that Russian special services killed her by Putin’s order. This was a cynical act, which was done mainly as a lesson to other independent journalists. Every journalist in Russia now understands that if this murder could happen to a celebrity, it could certainly happen to anyone."

President Putin categorically denied any prior knowledge of the two murders and described them as a possible provocation instigated by Russia's enemies whom he did not specifically identify. Mr. Putin's critics in Russia and abroad point out, however, that even if there has been no direct link between the two assassinations and the Kremlin, Mr. Putin is ultimately responsible for the climate of lawlessness and suppression of free media. They argue that Mr. Putin's attacks on democratic institutions and independent journalists may have facilitated these and other murders. More than 20 journalists have been killed in Russia since Mr. Putin came to power. Most of these murders have not been solved. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nongovernmental organization, has called Mr. Putin "Predator of Press Freedom."

Authoritarian leaders who openly disregard the law and restrict free media are sometimes surprised by unauthorized actions of their security services. Polish communist dictator General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who in 1981 had imposed martial law to prevent democratic reforms demanded by the Solidarity labor union, was apparently unaware that members of his own security services had planned and carried out the 1984 murder of Polish pro-Solidarity priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko.

The brutal murder of the priest proved to be a major political and public relations embarrassment for General Jaruzelski. He was forced to put the agents responsible for the killing on trial. The court testimony during the trial showed remarkable incompetence of the priest's killers and destroyed the myth of the Polish intelligence service as being highly professional and effective. The use of a traceable radioactive substance polonium-210 to poison Mr. Litvinenko also seems to show poor planning on the part of his killers. The Polish agents who murdered Father Popieluszko were convicted by a communist court but served relatively short prison sentences.

Subsequent investigations have shown that Father Popieluszko's Polish killers had contacts with the KGB Soviet agents responsible for monitoring religious activities. The KGB has been accused in media reports of organizing the unsuccessful assassination attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II in May 1981. No firm evidence has been uncovered to substantiate these accusations.

Accusations that KGB-trained agents may have been behind the poisoning of the Ukrainian presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko prior to the elections in December 2004 also could not be proven. President Putin was strongly opposed to Mr. Yushchenko's candidacy and backed his pro-Russian opponent. The theory that former Russian secret service agents plotted to poison Mr. Yushchenko was advanced by his then chief of staff Oleh Rybachuk. [Link] The accusations were categorically denied by Russian officials.

Discovering the truth behind the murders of Ms. Politkovskaya and Mr. Litvinenko has been made much more difficult by Mr. Putin's largely successful attempts to restrict independent journalism in Russia. At the same time, the United States government has drastically reduced its support for independent media in Russia and in other former Soviet republics. The Voice of America Russian-language radio service, which aired one of the last interviews with Mr. Litvinenko before his death, is scheduled to be closed down under the proposal approved by the White House and the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees all U.S. international broadcasts., a California-based nonprofit organization which supports freedom of the press worldwide, called the decision to restrict U.S. broadcasting to Russia "a major blow to free media and a gift to dictators and authoritarian regimes in Eurasia." Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian-language radio programs are heard in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union where Russian is still a lingua franca.

Since most journalists in Russia have been intimidated by the recent wave of murders, Western-based journalists have an additional obligation to investigate Mr. Litvinenko's claim regarding Mr. Politkovskaya's murder as well as his own mysterious death by poisoning. Getting clear answers will be difficult, however, since Mr. Putin -- himself an ex-KGB official -- seems unlikely to agree to putting current or former intelligence agents on trail if they were indeed involved in these two high-profile murders or any other crimes against independent journalists and pro-democracy activists in Russia and abroad.

Investigative journalists may want to look for signs of future dismissal or shake-ups within the Russian security services. Even of there is no official admission of complicity, major personnel changes within the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) could be one sign that President Putin may have uncovered unauthorized or bungled plots against his political enemies.