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Trial Begins in Russian Politician’s Killing

Times Staff Writer

The trial of a politician and five other suspects accused in the contract murder of a rival opened here Monday, and one of the defendants confessed in court to arranging and paying for the killing. He and two other defendants pleaded guilty in whole or in part to the charges against them, Russian media reported.

The high-profile trial is linked to the mysterious case of a missing presidential candidate, Ivan Rybkin, who succeeded the key defendant as head of a faction of the Liberal Russia party. Rybkin, a former national security chief, disappeared from his home Thursday. He had been expected to testify at the trial, Rybkin’s campaign manager and a defense lawyer said.

On Monday, prosecutors launched a formal murder investigation into Rybkin’s disappearance, then dropped it a few hours later because “no grounds for a criminal case, especially on charges of premeditated murder, existed,” a spokesperson for the prosecutor-general’s office told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

The missing candidate’s wife said Sunday that she feared her husband, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir V. Putin’s hard-line policy in war-torn Chechnya, was the victim of “revenge” from authorities. Police and security forces continued to search for Rybkin, one of six candidates challenging Putin in a March presidential election that the incumbent is seen as virtually certain to win.

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At Monday’s trial, Alexander Vinnik, an aide to Mikhail Kodanyov, who until his arrest led a Liberal Russia faction, testified that his boss ordered him to have lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov eliminated. Yushenkov, who was co-leader of a rival faction of the Liberal Russia party, was killed in April.

Vinnik testified that he received $50,000 from his boss and gave $20,000 to codefendant Igor Kiselyov as a down payment for the murder. Vinnik also said he didn’t expect that Kiselyov would carry out the killing, guessing that the latter would spend the money on alcohol.

After the lawmaker was gunned down outside his Moscow apartment, Vinnik said, he paid Kiselyov the remaining $30,000. Vinnik, who was accused of arranging the killing, pleaded guilty to murder and Kiselyov, the accused gunman, confessed that he received money for the crime, Russian news agencies reported.

Kodanyov, who is accused of ordering the murder, has maintained his innocence. Kodanyov’s lawyer sought to highlight discrepancies between Vinnik’s testimony Monday and statements he made to investigators soon after his arrest last summer, stressing conflicting accounts of where the crime was commissioned.

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Sergei Pashin, a pioneer of legal reform in Russia and a professor at the Moscow Institute of Economics, Politics and Law, said confessions would not be enough for convictions.

“Unlike in many Western judicial systems, in Russia, a confession of a defendant in such cases does not have legal force,” he said. “Moreover, the fact that one of the defendants, Alexander Vinnik, confessed today that he was getting money from a second one, from Kodanyov, is clearly not enough to pronounce Kodanyov guilty.”

Pashin also said inconsistencies in Vinnik’s testimony might raise questions about his confession.

“The case is clearly political, it is definitely out of the ordinary, it was submitted to court in a record short time, and there is an impression that this case has been treated in a very special way right from the very beginning,” Pashin said. “Plus, the coming elections make all this look extremely, extremely dubious.”

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On the day that Yushenkov was killed, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the key financier of Rybkin and his Liberal Russia faction, implied on NTV television that Putin might have been behind the killing, declaring: “Was the president informed of the assassination itself, or was he informed that the order to assassinate had been executed? I think the latter would be a more precise way to put it.”

Many analysts believe that authorities would like to pin responsibility for Yushenkov’s death on the tycoon, one of Putin’s fiercest critics.

Ksenia Ponomaryova, Rybkin’s campaign manager, said Monday evening that she knew “absolutely nothing new” about his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.

Asked whether he might have fled the country in fear of being accused of complicity in the lawmaker’s murder, she replied: “Ivan Rybkin was indeed supposed to be a witness in Sergei Yushenkov’s murder case. But it is impossible to even imagine that Rybkin would prefer to leave the country in order not to attend the court hearings and not to testify.

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“In fact, Rybkin has already been interviewed by investigators as a witness and his testimony has already been recorded,” she added. “Rybkin has got his own stance and opinion about the murder and he would not find it too hard or troublesome to repeat in court what he has already told the investigators. Besides this, it would be impossible for him to leave Russia without being noticed.”

Alexei V. Kuznetsov and Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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