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.
"There are actually two verdicts. The first is the verdict of acquittal to those men in the prisoner's box," Sokolov said. "But at the same time, this is a guilty verdict against this rogue system of law enforcement bodies."
Sergei Pashin, a former judge and a professor at the Moscow Institute of Economics, Politics and Law, said the case is an example of how corrupt interests can manipulate Russia's weak judicial system. "We have a saying, 'Cut off the tail of the investigation,' " he said. "It means limiting the investigation to certain episodes or issues" to avoid exposing too much corruption and implicating powerful individuals.
At the same time, he said, prosecutors and investigators are often ill-equipped to tackle tough cases because they have grown accustomed to a system in which pliant judges, who usually sit without a jury, issue acquittals in fewer than 1 percent of criminal cases. By contrast, in the tiny fraction of cases heard by juries, he said, the acquittal rate is close to 20 percent.
Politkovskaya, a fierce Putin critic best known for her reports on torture, war crimes and other abuses committed by the Kremlin's forces in Chechnya, was shot to death as she entered her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. The shooting occurred on Putin's birthday, fueling speculation that members of the security services angered by her reporting arranged the killing either as a gift to the president or in an attempt to damage his reputation.
Despite an international outcry, Putin refrained from commenting on the crime at first, and when he spoke out, he disparaged Politkovskaya's work as "utterly insignificant."
In addition to Politkovskaya and Baburova, two other Novaya Gazeta reporters have been killed, and Markelov, the lawyer shot to death Jan. 19, had often represented the newspaper in court. The violence has led the paper to consider arming its staff.
Sokolov said that although the failure to bring the killers to justice is frustrating, so is the fact that most Russians don't seem to care. He blamed the lack of interest on Kremlin media controls as well as on the hardships in Russia.
"When the main issue for the overwhelming majority in the country is feeding their families, everything else takes second place," he said. "They have just become numb. They just live with the fact that they are ruled by criminals who wear uniforms."