Hurdles in Russian Slaying Case

People gather in heavy rain in Moscow to remember Anna Politkovskaya on the second anniversary of her slaying.
People gather in heavy rain in Moscow to remember Anna Politkovskaya on the second anniversary of her slaying. (By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

MOSCOW, Oct. 7 -- Two years after the daring journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building, the Russian government is moving ahead with plans to prosecute three suspects in the slaying, one of them a former police major.

But the suspected gunman in the killing remains at large, and it is still unclear who ordered the assassination, which prompted domestic and international condemnation and concern over deteriorating press freedoms in Russia.

Investigators have narrowed the field of suspects they believe may have paid for the killing but have been frustrated by what they consider deliberate obstruction by officials in the Russian security services, according to Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Politkovskaya's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

"We have suspects," Petros Garibyan, the chief investigator in the case, said in an interview published in an issue of the paper marking the anniversary of the killing. "The list includes two, three or four people," he added. "We are very focused precisely on the alleged buyers. We must check all of them, surround them with evidence of guilt or innocence, and only after that say: Welcome to the detention cell."

Politkovskaya, 48, a fierce Kremlin critic known for her crusading reports on human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot repeatedly as she entered her apartment building in central Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006. Her assailant left a pistol on the floor beside her, a common practice of hired killers in Russia.

The killing occurred on then-President Vladimir Putin's birthday, a circumstance that fueled speculation about a possible official role in the crime, perhaps by members of the security services angered by Politkovskaya's efforts to uncover corruption and brutality under Putin's rule. Putin is now prime minister.

Beginning in August 2007, police arrested 11 people suspected of involvement in the case, including several members of a Chechen crime gang, four former police officers and a former official in the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB.

Senior law enforcement officials, including the nation's top prosecutor, said the motive for the killing had not been to silence Politkovskaya but to discredit the Kremlin and destabilize the Russian state.

In the interview with Novaya Gazeta, Garibyan appeared to reject that theory, saying instead that Politkovskaya was killed because of her reporting.

Most of those detained in 2007 have been released, either for lack of evidence or because their role in the crime was limited. Prosecutors approved indictments last week against Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police major in a unit responsible for fighting organized crime, and two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov.

Garibyan said Khadzhikurbanov planned the killing, while the two brothers acted as lookouts who tipped the gunman off to Politkovskaya's movements. He identified the suspected gunman as a third brother, Rustam Makhmudov, who may have fled the country.

Prosecutors are also pursuing charges against the former FSB official, Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov, but Garibyan said he did not have enough evidence to charge him in the killing. Ryaguzov has been indicted in a separate case in which he is accused of working with Khadzhikurbanov to beat and extort a Russian businessman.

Muratov said reporters at Novaya Gazeta have been cooperating with the authorities, and he praised Garibyan and his colleagues for their dedication and professionalism. But he said the security services have been trying to thwart their probe, by withholding documents and other evidence and by leaking information that has tipped off suspects.

He said he and investigators believe Politkovskaya was killed for working on an unpublished story on "corruption in Chechnya and Russia" that he declined to describe in detail. But he singled out Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov for failing to cooperate with the investigation.

"The newspaper doesn't have any information that Ramzan Kadyrov was personally connected with this case, but we have no doubt that this killing is tied to Chechnya and we know for sure he is aware of almost everything that happens there," Muratov said. "And yet, for some reason, he has no information about this particular case."

Alla Gorobets, 62, a retired teacher in the crowd of 200 people who marked the anniversary of the crime in a rain-soaked vigil Tuesday, said she doubted the killers would ever be punished. "Not under Putin's regime," she said. "That's why I'm here. This is my protest."


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