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Russia Opposition Leader Laid to Rest

  • VOA News

Thousands of mourners paid respects to Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin gunned down late last week just steps from the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was laid to rest Tuesday at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, where Anna Politkovskaya, the award-winning Russian journalist murdered in 2006, is also buried.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an opposition activist and close friend, called Nemtsov a reformer. “That is how he will go down in history, already has.”

Kasyanov went on to say, “Boris could not tolerate what was happening in Russia and watching the current government practically stomp out the Russian constitution and take rights from Russian people,” he said. “He and I were fighting against it."

Viewing of body

Earlier in the day, thousands of people filed past Nemtsov's coffin at the Andrei Sakharov human rights center in the Russian capital, where his body lay in state.

Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin wall Friday night.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday in Berlin that she would push Russia to guarantee freedom of speech after such a “serious" and "sad” murder.

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“The murder of the opposition civil rights leader Nemtsov is a serious incident, a sad occurrence and we expect that everything be done to resolve this murder," Merkel said. "And I hope and we will work so that those who think differently in Russia also get a chance to express their views, although I know that this is anything but easy.”

Also Tuesday, the European Union strongly condemned Moscow for barring Polish and Latvian officials from entering Russia to attend Nemtsov's funeral.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the bans a "high affront'' and said he will address the issue "in the strongest terms and demand an official explanation" from Russian authorities.

Several Russia's opposition leaders were also barred from attending the funeral.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich was among the Russian delegates at the ceremony. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft also attended, as did former British Prime Minister John Major.

At least two European officials were prevented from traveling to Moscow for Nemtsov's funeral.

Barred from Moscow

Poland's foreign ministry said Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz was refused entry to Russia in retaliation for recent European Union sanctions against Moscow.

Russia also denied entry to Latvian lawmaker Sandra Kalniete, a senior member of the European Parliament. Kalniete said she was insulted by the ban, but is "really proud to be labeled an enemy of Russia."

Another Kremlin critic, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was unable to attend the ceremonies after a Moscow court on Monday dismissed a motion that he be released from prison early. Navalny is serving a 15-day sentence for handing out leaflets promoting a protest.

Moscow did not give explanations for refusing entry into Russia to the two officials, but said some Europeans were on a blacklist drawn up in retaliation for Western travel restrictions imposed on Russians close to the Kremlin, Reuters reported.

The former deputy prime minister was shot four times in the back by unidentified assailants last Friday as he walked across a bridge with his girlfriend.

Watch video report from VOA's Daniel Schearf:

​Putin has promised a full investigation into the shocking murder, which many opposition activists said was reprisal for Nemtsov's criticism of Moscow.

Tens of thousands of people marched in central Moscow Sunday to mourn Nemtsov, who is just the latest Russian opposition figure to be killed under mysterious circumstances.

Girlfriend's statement

Nemtsov's girlfriend, Anna Duritskaya, commented publicly Monday for the first time since the murder. But the 23-year-old Ukrainian model said she did not see the killer.

Duritskaya said in an interview with Russia's independent Dozhd television she had dinner with Nemtsov and they were then crossing the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge in the direction of his apartment when he was killed shortly before midnight.

She said the assailant had approached them from behind and that a light-colored vehicle drove away from the scene of the shooting, but that she didn't see the assailant or notice the make or license plate of the car.

The Russian Investigative Committee, which is handling the case, said in a statement that Duritskaya had returned to her native Ukraine.

Map of Moscow showing the bridge over the Moscow River near the Kremlin

Map of Moscow showing the bridge over the Moscow River near the Kremlin

Investigators said they are looking into several possible links for Nemtsov's slaying, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and his personal life. They have offered a reward of nearly $50,000 for any information.

Propaganda machine

Nemtsov’s supporters blame the Kremlin’s propaganda machine for creating an atmosphere of nationalist hysteria and hate directed at so-called “traitors” who oppose Putin’s policies. Nemtsov was branded as such by Kremlin supporters.

Ilya Yashin is an activist with Russia’s Solidarity movement and attended the Nemtsov services.

”When someone in the government's propaganda is turned into an enemy of the people, that almost always turns into a political murder. Vladimir Putin, at a minimum, has to take some political responsibility for it (the murder)," Yashin said.

Nemtsov’s killing was the most politically charged assassination in Russia since 2006, when Novaya Gazeta journalist Politkovskaya was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building.

The independent newspaper is known for not shying away from criticizing Russian authorities.

Five of Novaya Gazeta’s journalists and one lawyer have been murdered for their work, most of them apparently victims of paid killers. Although killers have been jailed, in only one case has the person who allegedly ordered the murder been identified, but no one has been sentenced.

'Strange coincidence'

Sergei Sokolov is the deputy chief-editor and head of the department of investigations at the newspaper. On Tuesday, he noted to VOA that “by a strange coincidence” all the killings had occurred since President Putin had come to power.

“Generally the attitude of intolerance to any critics of the present regime,” he says, “to any independent critics of the regime, has grown exponentially and has topped the scale.”

Sokolov added, “no one could be sure of his security today.”

In 2012 Sokolov briefly fled the country after the head of Russia’s investigative committee allegedly drove him into the forest and threatened his life. The investigator denies the incident occurred.

Among Nemtsov's supporters, few think his murder will be solved.

Surprisingly, Sokolov is mildly optimistic about the Nemtsov investigation. He said the case is being handled by an investigator who has solved every case he was handed.

"For me, it's a personal signal that, because I know the internal workings of the investigative committee, that the authorities want to understand what happened," he said. "Depending on what comes to light, we'll see if they leave him on the case, or they give it to somebody else. It's hard to say now. But I have hope that those who carried it out can be found. In regards to the mastermind, how soon will we know? It depends on who the mastermind is."

US reaction

In an interview with Reuters news agency at the White House Monday afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama said Nemtsov's murder is a sign of a worsening climate in Russia where, he said, civil rights and media freedoms have been rolled back in the last several years.

"This is an indication of a climate at least inside of Russia in which civil society, independent journalists, people trying to communicate on the Internet, have felt increasingly threatened, constrained," Obama said. "And increasingly the only information that the Russian public is able to get is through state-controlled media outlets."

Obama called for a full investigation into the incident.

He said the killing is "part of what has allowed, I think, Russia to engage in the sort of aggression that it has against Ukraine.''

Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Moscow. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AFP.

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