What's Behind Russia's Killing Spree?

Natalia Estemirova, a top human rights activist, is the latest critic of the Russian government to have met an untimely demise. She was kidnapped and then killed in Ingushetia on July 15, the latest casualty in a long list of murders making Russia the third deadliest country for journalists.

As the Telegraph puts it, “there used to be three key people when it came to uncovering human rights abuses in Chechnya -- the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the lawyer Stanislav Markelov, and the human rights researcher Natalia Estemirova. In the space of less than three years, they’ve all now been murdered.”

This begs the question: what are they saying that the Russian government is trying to silence?

In 2007, Ivan Safronov “committed suicide” by jumping off a building after reporting on the failures of Russian military equipment. Politkovskaya was killed in an elevator after reporting on human rights abuses and warning of a return to dictatorship. A journalist named Magomed Yevloyev died in police custody after “resisting arrest” in August 2008. He was a critic of the pro-Russian leader of Ingushetia and reported on fraud in the election that brought President Medvedev to power.

The most high-profile assassination widely suspected to have been carried out by the Russian government is that of former high-level FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who served in a top position in the Directorate of Analysis and Suppression of Criminal Groups. He died on November 23, 2006, after being poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210. The Russians are refusing to extradite Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB operative suspected in the murder, to the United Kingdom. Lugovoy is currently serving as a member of the Duma.

The lengths to which Russia went to assassinate Litvinenko should make the West ask what he was saying or doing that seemed to threatened Putin and the FSB so much. Like others, he alleged FSB involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow that preceded the invasion of Chechnya, as well as other terrorist incidents on the soil of the former Soviet Union. He also accused Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy, of having worked for the KGB. At the time of his poisoning, he was investigating the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who he said had been killed on orders from Putin.

Litvinenko earlier made some surprising statements about a Russian connection to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man of al-Qaeda, which most found too unbelievable to be true. His assassination gives us reason to give his credibility and claims a second look.