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Putin Critics Said To Be On Russian 'Kill List'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It's been a little more than three weeks since Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow. Prosecutors have arrested suspects in the case, but it's still not clear who ordered such a high-profile killing. In the meantime, there have been media reports suggesting Nemtsov was just the first on a kill list that targets other political opposition figures. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow to talk about this. Corey, who else has been threatened?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: One of the first was a 33-year-old former socialite named Ksenia Sobchak. She was once known as the Russian Paris Hilton. She's blonde, glamorous. She hangs out with the rich and famous and all that. But she went from being a party girl to a very visible figure in the opposition. She's now the anchor program of a program on the independent TV channel Rain. Supposedly, at Nemtsov's funeral, a man walked up to her and muttered you're next.

MARTIN: OK. So this, I suppose, could have been an impromptu threat tossed off in the moment to intimidate her. Is there really a fear that there's something more systemic a kind of list of multiple targets?

FLINTOFF: Well, Sobchak is thought to have friends in the Russian Security Services. And supposedly, one of those friends told her that she was on the list, and she should get out of the country for a while. Around the same time, one of Russia's best-known independent journalists got the word that he too was on a list. His name is Alexei Venediktov, and he's the editor in chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow. He's a very recognizable figure. He has this mass of curly, white hair. He's very sociable. You see him all over town.

But Venediktov and his son actually left the country briefly. They caught a flight to Israel apparently thinking that they had good reason to fear for their lives. And Venediktov isn't somebody who scares easily. He's been getting these death threats for years because his radio station is one of the few places where you can still hear really scathing criticism of President Putin. And there is one other name, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He's a former oligarchic. He spent more than 10 years in prison after opposing President Putin. He now lives in Switzerland, but there was a moment earlier this month when his spokeswoman in Moscow came out of her apartment one morning and found a large funeral wreath by her door.

MARTIN: So these stories have been recounted in media reports, but are these people talking publicly about the threats? Has it changed their behavior at all? I mean, clearly if one of them left the country, it is to some degree.

FLINTOFF: Well, Venediktov is not saying anything now. In fact, he gave us a polite no comment a couple of days ago. Ksenia Sobchak seems to be back tracking a bit. She is out of the country, but says it has nothing to do with any death threats.

MARTIN: Any idea who's behind these threats, Corey? I mean, who would want to spread this kind of intimidation?

FLINTOFF: Well, of course, President Putin's spokesman is denying any involvement. But there is one person who has publicly threatened a couple of these people. And that's the head of the Russian Republic Chechnya. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov. He's a strong man in his own region, and he's been presenting himself lately as a defender of Muslims. You'll probably recall that all five of the suspects who've been arrested in the Nemtsov murder are from Chechnya. And, in fact, Kadyrov praised one of those suspects as a patriot and a hero. So there's speculation that he could be behind this list if there is one. One point to consider is that there doesn't have to be a real list. You know, the climate of fear is probably enough to silence critics or drive them out of the country.

MARTIN: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Thanks so much, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.