Chechen brothers cleared of murdering Kremlin critic

politkovskaya_defendents

Dzhabrail, left, and Ibragim Makhmudov, right, with their lawyer Murad Musayev, centre, leave the court yesterday

Shock decision is denounced by human rights campaigners demanding justice for dead Russian journalist

Independent | Feb 20, 2009

By Shaun Walker in Moscow

A court in Moscow has acquitted four men accused of involvement in the murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, in a verdict that was greeted with dismay by human rights activists.

Two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and a former policeman, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, were found not guilty of murder and freed. A former FSB lieutenant-colonel, Pavel Ryaguzov, was cleared of separate but related charges.

The verdicts bring to a close a confused and chaotic trial that has raised far more questions than it answered. The men standing trial were accused of being accomplices to the crime, but the man who allegedly pulled the trigger – a third Makhmudov brother – is on the run abroad, and the mastermind has also not been revealed.

“We demand and need the real murderer, and we will achieve this,” said Karina Moskalenko, a lawyer for Politkovskaya’s family, outside the courtroom. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it respected the jury’s decision to acquit the defendants based on the evidence state prosecutors presented, “but we are disheartened by the continued impunity in this momentous case. No prosecution will be complete until the triggerman and mastermind are in the dock.”

The Novaya Gazeta journalist was noted for her criticism of the Kremlin and her illumination of human rights abuses in Russia’s restive region of Chechnya. Rights groups suspect that the murder may have been ordered by figures within Russia’s security services, or by Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president Ramzan Kadyrov. But the Kremlin has suggested that the murder was part of a plot to discredit Russia, financed from abroad.

The trial has been plagued by suspicious incidents since it opened in the autumn. The judge initially ruled that the proceedings would be closed to the public after one of the jury members had said they were frightened of being exposed to media glare. A jury member then rang a Moscow radio station to reveal that no such demand had been made, and the judge was forced to backtrack.

What the journalists who were able to squeeze into the small, packed courtroom heard during the trial was an investigation littered with confusing red herrings and loose ends. The court was shown chilling footage of a man in a baseball cap entering Politkovskaya’s apartment on 7 October 2006, a few minutes before the journalist returned home, then re-emerging, having emptied five bullets into Politkovskaya’s head and body.

But why did the killer on the video footage seemingly have much thinner shoulders than the alleged killer, Rustam Makhmudov? Who were the man and woman caught on CCTV following Politkovskaya around a supermarket just hours before her murder? How was Rustam Makhmudov, who worked on operations with Russia’s FSB spy agency, allowed to flee abroad? What were the roles of the large cast of shadowy figures related to the sprawling and shadowy FSB who cropped up during the trial?

In the end, the jury decided that the evidence was not enough for a guilty verdict. The brothers’ lawyer has claimed that they were set up by people who wanted to disguise the identity of the real murderer.

Politkovskaya’s son said yesterday that he believed all four men to be connected to his mother’s murder in at least some way. Novaya Gazeta said it would continue its own investigation into the killing.

A European watchdog called Russia’s failure to bring to justice the killers of journalists a “human rights crisis”. Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said: “There can be no word about freedom of the media in a country where editors have to fear the loss of their best and brightest colleagues for doing their work.”

Last month another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anastasia Baburova, was shot dead in central Moscow together with a leading human rights lawyer. No arrests have yet been made.

“The whole world was waiting to see how this investigation would end and how the government would act, and in the end we have absolutely nothing,” said the chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists, Vsevolod Bogdanov. “I am desperate for justice and worry that my state looks this way in the eyes of the international community and that there exists this kind of attitude towards my profession.”

*Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil empire, who was jailed in 2005 for tax evasion, will be brought to Moscow to stand trial on further charges.

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