West Demands Probe Into Putin Critic's Murder

Russian investigators: Boris Nemtsov's muder may have been 'a provocation'; Ukraine president says was murdered because he planned to disclose evidence of Russia's involvement in Ukraine's conflict.

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People lay flowers in memory of Boris Nemtsov, seen at left, at the monument of political prisoners 'Solovetsky Stone' in central St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.
People lay flowers in memory of Boris Nemtsov, seen at left, at the monument of political prisoners 'Solovetsky Stone' in central St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.Credit: AP

Western leaders condemned the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov over the weekend, and are pressing the Kremlin to ensure that the killing is thoroughly investigated.

U.S. President Barack Obama said "Nemtsov was a tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled. ... We offer our sincere condolences to Boris Efimovich's family, and to the Russian people, who have lost one of the most dedicated and eloquent defenders of their rights."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Nemtsov's "life was dedicated to speaking up tirelessly for the Russian people, to demanding their right to democracy and liberty under the rule of law, and to an end to corruption."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Saturday that Merkel was "dismayed" by Nemtsov's killing and is urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure that the assassination is cleared up and the perpetrators brought to justice. She praised Nemtsov's courage in criticizing government policies.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "Boris Nemtsov was a strong advocate for modern, prosperous and democratic Russian Federation, open to the world. ... The EU expects the Russian authorities to conduct a full, rapid and transparent investigation into this assassination, bringing the culprits swiftly to justice."

Similar statements were issued by France, Canada, Finland and other.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Saturday Nemtsov was murdered because he planned to disclose evidence of Russia's involvement in Ukraine's separatist conflict.

Poroshenko paid tribute to Nemtsov, who was shot dead late on Friday, and said the fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin had told him a couple of weeks ago that he had proof of Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis and would reveal it.

"He said he would reveal persuasive evidence of the involvement of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Someone was very afraid of this ... They killed him," Poroshenko said in televised comments during a visit to the city of Vinnytsia.

Investigators list possible motives

Russia's top investigative body said Saturday it is looking into several possible motives for the killing of prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and his personal life.

A statement from the body, the Investigative Committee, did not address the possibility seen as likely by many of Nemtsov's supporters — that he was killed for being one of President Vladimir Putin's most adamant and visible critics.

The 55-year-old Nemtsov was gunned down Friday near midnight as he walked on a bridge near the Kremlin with a female companion. The killing came just a few hours after a radio interview in which he denounced Putin's "mad, aggressive" policies and the day before he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia's actions in the Ukraine crisis and the economic crisis at home.

After his death, organizers canceled the rally and instead called for a demonstration to mourn him on Sunday in central Moscow. The city gave quick approval for that gathering, in contrast to its usual slow and grudging permission for opposition rallies.

The Investigative Committee said it was looking into whether Nemtsov had been killed as a "sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals," a suggestion echoing the comments by Putin's spokesman and other Russian politicians that the attack was a "provocation" against the state.

It also said it was considering whether there was "personal enmity" toward him in his domestic life. State-controlled TV and Kremlin-friendly media outlets on Saturday gave considerable attention to Nemtsov's companion, identifying her as a Ukrainian model 30 years his junior and showing photos of her in alluring poses. The Investigative Committee said the pair were headed for Nemtsov's apartment.

The statement also said it was investigating whether the killing was connected to the Ukraine conflict, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since last April, or whether there was a connection to Islamic extremism.

Nemtsov had been one of Putin's most visible critics and his death hit other members of the opposition hard. The mourning march on Sunday could serve to galvanize the beleaguered and marginalized opposition, or it could prove to be a brief catharsis after which emotions dissipate.

Through the morning, hundreds of people came to the site of Nemtsov's death to lay flowers.

Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia's direct involvement in the separatist rebellion that has raged in eastern Ukraine since April. Moscow denies backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons.

Putin ordered Russia's top law enforcement chiefs to personally oversee the investigation of Nemtsov's killing.

"Putin noted that this cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit and is extremely provocative," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

Nemtsov frequently assailed the government's inefficiency, rampant corruption and Ukraine policy. In an interview with the Sobesednik newspaper, Nemtsov said earlier this month that his 86-year old mother was afraid that Putin could have him killed. Asked if he had such fears himself, he responded: "If I were afraid I wouldn't have led an opposition party."

Speaking on radio just a few hours before his death, he accused Putin of plunging Russia into crisis by his "mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine."

Nemtsov served as a regional governor and then a deputy prime minister in the 1990s and once was seen as a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first elected president.

Nemtsov was widely liked for his good humor, larger-than-life character and quick wit, but he and other top opposition figures long have been purged from state television and steadily marginalized by the Kremlin.

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