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."
He said a court secretary had told the jurors of the media interest in the case and suggested they request a closed trial. "She came in several times and brought us a form, which said we wanted to bar the media because we were afraid," Kolesov said.
Some jurors were worried cameras would be allowed in the courtroom, he said, but they unanimously agreed to let the trial begin with reporters present and "see how it went." He added that 19 of the 20 jurors and alternate jurors signed a letter to the judge denying they wanted the news media removed.
Echo Moskvy said it had seen an official court pass identifying Kolesov as a juror in the case. A court spokesman declined to comment on his assertions.
Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, said Kolesov's statements confirmed his suspicions. "We said that all this looks not quite clean, that it looks like a special operation and not a court hearing, and now it is becoming clear that indeed is the case," he told the Reuters news agency.
A lawyer for the defense, Murad Musayev, said he believed the judge was trying to close the trial on orders from superiors. "We will demand an open trial," he said.
Karina Moskalenko, a lawyer representing Politkovskaya's family, said she would also renew her request for an open trial, but she was more cautious in describing the judge's actions, saying he might have been misinformed about the jury's opinion.
"There should be consequences, and the consequence should be an open trial," she said. "I would insist on it even more energetically, and I'm more optimistic it will happen."