Juror Defies Russian Court's Attempts to Close Murder Trial to Media

From left, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov and Ibragim and Dhzabrail Makhmudov are accused of helping to arrange the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and particularly harsh critic of the Kremlin.
From left, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov and Ibragim and Dhzabrail Makhmudov are accused of helping to arrange the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and particularly harsh critic of the Kremlin. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)
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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 21, 2008

MOSCOW, Nov. 20 -- The trial of three men accused of helping to organize the murder of one of Russia's most prominent investigative reporters, Anna Politkovskaya, took a surprise turn Thursday as a juror publicly challenged the court's decision to hold the proceedings behind closed doors.

The judge, Yevgeny Zubov, had ordered the trial closed a day earlier, saying members of the jury had refused to participate if reporters were allowed in the courtroom. But a man who identified himself as one of the jurors stepped forward Thursday and disputed the judge's explanation.

"None of us demanded in any categorical form that the press must not attend. I can definitely say that," the juror, Yevgeny Kolesov, said in remarks broadcast on Echo Moskvy radio station. Kolesov, a roofer, said that a court official had tried several times to persuade the jury to sign a statement requesting a closed trial but that the jurors all refused.

The disclosure was a rare act of defiance in a judicial system weighted heavily in favor of state control. It threw the trial into disarray and added to the questions that have dogged the government's investigation of Politkovskaya's killing, which sparked international outrage and concern over the safety of journalists in Russia.

Prosecutors had been scheduled to begin presenting evidence, but the judge adjourned the trial until Dec. 1, citing a scheduling conflict that defense lawyers said did not exist.

Politkovskaya, a fierce Kremlin critic known for her reports on human rights abuses in the restive Russian republic of Chechnya, was shot to death as she entered her Moscow apartment building Oct. 7, 2006. More than two years later, police have yet to arrest the gunman or identify who ordered and financed the attack, which investigators describe as a contract killing.

The shooting occurred on the birthday of then-President Vladimir Putin, fueling speculation about a possible official role in the crime, perhaps involving members of the security services angered by Politkovskaya's reporting.

Politkovskaya's relatives, as well as colleagues at her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, have accused the security services of obstructing the investigation by withholding evidence and leaking information that allowed the suspected triggerman and others to escape.

Prosecutors have charged three men, including a former police major, with helping to organize the killing. A fourth suspect, a former colonel in the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, faces charges in a separate case.

Attorneys for the defendants and for Politkovskaya's family requested an open trial in a hearing Monday, and the judge initially agreed. But he reversed the decision two days later, citing the fears of jury members.

Kolesov, the juror, said he was stunned by the explanation when he heard it reported on the radio later that day. "I came home and started making dinner, and I turned on Echo Moskvy and suddenly learned that we had allegedly chickened out, that we were afraid of the press and asked the judge to remove the press," he said.

"We are not cowards, of course. We were not afraid," he said. "They made a laughingstock of us."

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