Jury acquits three charged in Russian journalist’s death
A jury Thursday cleared all three men charged with helping to kill outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, laying bare the state’s apparent inability to find or prosecute those behind one of Russia’s most politically charged assassinations.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours before acquitting two Chechen brothers and a former police officer charged as accessories in the newspaper reporter’s slaying in 2006. The judge immediately freed the men, along with an FSB officer who was tried simultaneously in a related case. The FSB is the domestic successor of the KGB.
News of the acquittal was met with grim acceptance among Politkovskaya’s supporters and colleagues, many of whom argued that the jury was correct in clearing the suspects because the prosecutors’ case was too flimsy.
They lamented the verdict as a crushing failure on the part of Russia’s legal system. The men were in fact connected to the killing, one of her editors insisted, but shoddy investigation and flimsy prosecution got in the way of the truth.
“The ineffective investigation was obvious to us, as well as the unclear accusations,” Karina Moskalenko, the lawyer who represented the Politkovskaya family, said in terse comments after the suspects were freed.
“We are making demands,” she later told reporters. “We need a real murderer.”
A reporter for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya had more than her share of powerful enemies. She undertook fierce, cutting investigations into human rights abuses carried out by Russian soldiers in Chechnya, as well as offering damning portraits of then President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. She was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building on Putin’s birthday in 2006.
Politkovskaya’s killing set off a lengthy and secretive hunt for the gunman and other suspects, as well as for those who ordered and paid for her death. But investigators have so far managed to bring to trial only the suspects acquitted Thursday, who were accused of relatively minor roles such as surveillance, dropping off the gunman and buying the weapon.
The investigation was troubled from the start. Nearly a year after Politkovskaya’s death, Russia’s prosecutor general jailed 11 suspects, but seven of them were later set free under murky circumstances. The freed suspects reportedly included a pair of former surveillance specialists with the Moscow police.
Even as the trial got underway, state secrecy laws prevented journalists and the public from getting a clear view of the case. Some testimony and other court proceedings were heard in private because intelligence agents were involved, lawyers said.
Critics say it was no accident that the search for the killers was ultimately fruitless. Even Moskalenko, the lawyer representing the Politkovskaya family, stopped just short of urging jurors to acquit the suspects, throwing blame instead on corrupt authorities.
“If it weren’t for the open and hidden tampering and pressure the investigators came under, there would have been more defendants on the bench and the case would have had more evidence,” said Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor at Novaya Gazeta. “The law enforcement system did everything it could to save itself, because they were involved in the murder.
“I’m angry,” said Sokolov, who warned that witnesses would now be vulnerable to reprisal from the men they testified against.
Prosecutors vowed to appeal the case. A lawyer for Dzhabrail Makhmudov, the younger Chechen brother, said his client would seek compensation for unjust imprisonment.
The lawyer, flamboyant debater Murad Musayev, raised doubts during the trial about inconsistencies in the cellphone records used by prosecutors to place the brothers in Politkovskaya’s neighborhood the day of the killing.
The brothers insisted that they couldn’t remember where they were when Politkovskaya was killed. Musayev accused intelligence agencies of providing fake telephone records in order to frame the brothers. “These guys have long been kept behind bars for nothing, tormented for nothing,” he told reporters.
Another Makhmudov brother is missing and is wanted by investigators who suspect him of being the one who pulled the trigger. Musayev says he has amassed DNA evidence casting doubt on the suspected gunman’s guilt.
The two brothers embraced upon hearing the jury’s verdict, and their mother wept, according to reports from within the courtroom. Setting forth into freedom, the men said they expected the case to be appealed and that they hoped to see the real killers hunted down.
“Everyone could see they had no proof,” Dzhabrail Makhmudov said.