3 Acquitted in Killing of Russian Reporter

A man holds a photo of Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative reporter, during an unauthorized 2006 rally to commemorate journalists slain in Russia.
A man holds a photo of Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative reporter, during an unauthorized 2006 rally to commemorate journalists slain in Russia. (By Misha Japaridze -- Associated Press)
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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 20, 2009

MOSCOW, Feb. 19 -- A Russian jury on Thursday acquitted three men charged with the murder of the prominent investigative reporter and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, highlighting the government's inability, or unwillingness, to solve one of the most notorious political killings in Russia's post-Soviet history.

The verdict was announced in the Moscow District Military Court after a complex and at times chaotic trial that raised more questions than it answered about Politkovskaya's 2006 assassination. Her killing sparked international outrage and concern about the safety of journalists who challenge the government of Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time and is now prime minister.

Most notably, prosecutors failed to identify who ordered the hit on Politkovskaya or to arrest the suspected gunman. Instead, they presented evidence against three peripheral figures, two Chechen brothers accused of acting as lookouts and a former police official who allegedly handled the logistics of the shooting. But even that case was flimsy, a result, critics say, of stonewalling and interference by Russia's security services.

A fourth defendant, Pavel Ryaguzov, a colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic successor to the KGB, was linked to the killing but prosecuted on an unrelated extortion charge. He, too, was acquitted.

The verdict came one month after a well-known human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and a student journalist, Anastasia Baburova, were gunned down together in central Moscow. Colleagues and family members said the acquittal sent a signal that such political violence will continue to go unpunished in Russia.

"I thought after studying the case records, and I still believe, that all four people who were released by the jury today were involved in my mother's murder in one way or another," Ilya Politkovsky said.

"I am not disappointed in the verdict," he added. "But I am disappointed by the prosecution and the people who produced it, because this verdict is the result."

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper where Politkovskaya and Baburova worked, said that more than 100 journalists in Russia have been victims of contract killings since the early 1990s and that not one of the cases is considered solved.

He said investigators assigned to Politkovskaya's shooting were obstructed by intelligence and police officials who refused to turn over key evidence and leaked information that allowed the suspected gunman to flee the country. The FSB placed both Politkovskaya and Ryaguzov under surveillance in the weeks before the killing but withheld recordings and reports, he said. In addition, investigators were never permitted to search Ryaguzov's office properly or seize his computer.

"There could have been much more evidence in court and many more defendants in the dock," Sokolov said. "But when it turned out that law enforcement and special service officials and their numerous secret agents were dragged into the case, the system put out a giant shield."

Testimony during the trial, however, opened a rare window into the shadowy web of ties between FSB officials and members of the criminal underworld, and presented a troubling picture of the corruption that has penetrated law enforcement and other government agencies.

Sergei Khajikurbanov, the former police official acquitted on charges of organizing Politkovskaya's killing, was said to have been given the assignment by a Chechen contract killer, who himself was identified as an agent managed by Ryaguzov, the FSB colonel. Prosecutors alleged that Ryaguzov provided the killers with Politkovskaya's address and other information from government databases.

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