On Feb. 19, 2009, a jury unanimously acquitted three men accused of helping to organize the 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The presiding judge ordered the case reopened and press freedom advocates are demanding a renewed and vigorous investigation.
The New York Times reported February 19 that Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer, was accused of organizing logistics for the killing, and Chechen brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov were accused of acting as a lookout and driver for the unidentified triggerman. The three men have been in custody since they were among 10 people arrested in August 2007 as part of the investigation. The New York Times reported that a fourth acquitted suspect, former Federal Security Service Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov, was tried alongside the other three because he had criminal ties to them, but was not accused of playing a role in the murder itself. The Silha Bulletin reported in the Summer 2008 issue that investigators had previously said Ryaguzov provided Politkovskaya’s address to the killers. (See “Charges Filed in Politkovskaya Murder, Killer Still at Large” in the Summer 2008 issue and “Russia: Politkovskaya Investigation Continues; Reporter Detained for Alleged Extortion” in the Fall 2007 Silha Bulletin.)
Politkovskaya was shot and killed in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. The circumstances of her death led many to speculate that the killing was in retaliation for her outspoken criticism of government officials and policies targeting Chechnya, the topic for much of the reporting for which she was renowned. The Washington Post characterized the shooting as an “apparent contract killing,” the killer having left the murder weapon at the feet of the victim as an assassin’s mark. (See “Famed Russian Reporter Murdered in Contract Killing” in the Fall 2006 Silha Bulletin.)
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported Feb. 19, 2009 that lead investigator Petros Garibyan told Politkovskaya’s former employer Novaya Gazeta in October 2008 that a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, is Politkovskaya’s suspected killer. Rustam remains at large and is sought on an international warrant, and investigators have yet to name the suspected mastermind of the killing, the CPJ reported.
The New York Times reported Nov. 20, 2008 that when the trial began, Judge Yevgeny Zubov announced that it would be open to the media, but then reversed himself a day later saying that jury members had requested that it be closed. The trial was reopened after juror Evgeny Kolesov said that no such request had been made. Kolesov said a court secretary had given jurors a petition requesting that journalists be barred from the trial on the grounds that the jury was frightened, and had asked them to sign it, but the jurors had all refused. Instead, Kolesov said, jurors asked for the removal of television crews and photographers, but said print media reporters could remain in the courtroom. According to the CPJ on Feb. 19, 2009, Kolesov was later dismissed from the jury for talking to the media.
The New York Times reported February 19 that following the acquittals, Zubov ordered the Russian Investigative Committee to reopen the case. Prosecutors said they will appeal the acquittals of Khadzhikurbanov and the Makhmudov brothers.
Press freedom advocates called on government investigators to find and prosecute Politkovskaya’s killers. CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said, “Though we respect the jury’s decision … based on the presented evidence, we are deeply disappointed at the continued impunity in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. We call on Russian authorities to work with renewed commitment and vigor to find all responsible for this terrible crime and bring them to justice.”
According to The Associated Press on January 20, Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Program Director Nicola Duckworth said in a statement “The end of the trial does not lift the onus from the authority to find the murderer and his sponsors,” and a press release from Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters without Borders) said, “Until the triggerman and the masterminds are identified, it will be impossible to know who ordered this murder and why. Everything remains to be done.”
RSF was specifically critical of Russian authorities’ efforts thus far, stating the acquittal resulted from “an incomplete investigation that was brought to trial prematurely.”
In the meantime, harassment and murders continue to threaten Russian journalists.
On Jan. 19, 2009, part-time Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasia Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov were shot and killed while walking on a Moscow sidewalk.
According to CPJ, Baburova and Markelov were leaving a press conference at approximately 3 p.m. when a man approached Markelov and shot him in the back of the head. CPJ said local media reported that Baburova had apparently tried to stop the killer when she was also shot in the head. Markelov died immediately; Baburova died later in a Moscow hospital.
Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergei Sokolov told CPJ, “It appears that Markelov was the main target,” but added Novaya Gazeta was waiting for official investigation results to determine whether Baburova was also targeted.
CPJ reported that at the press conference Markelov had criticized the early release of a former tank commander that had been convicted and imprisoned on charges of murdering a Chechen girl. Markelov represented the girl’s family and was planning to appeal the man’s early release.
CPJ reported that Markelov had also appealed for the opening of a criminal case against the suspected masterminds of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Igor Domnikov, who was beaten to death with a hammer in 2000. Before Politkovskaya’s death, Markelov defended her in multiple lawsuits, Sokolov told CPJ.
CPJ reported that Baburova was the fourth Novaya Gazeta reporter to be killed in a work-related murder since 2000, including the beating death of Domnikov, the death of Deputy Editor Yuri Shchekochikhin due to a suspicious poisoning in 2003, and the Politkovskaya shooting in 2006. In a November 2007 interview Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov told CPJ, “We have suffered war-like casualties.”
Russian press agency RIA Novosti reported January 21 that the investigation of the Baburova and Markelov murders had been passed from a Moscow city agency to the national-level Russian Investigation Committee. RIA Novosti reported that Russian Investigation Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin said “the audacity of the murder of the lawyer and the journalist in the center of Moscow and the public outcry that followed” led to the case’s transfer to an agency with more resources, but the investigation would be difficult to solve because of the large number of connections that the victims had.
CPJ said violence against journalists rose in Russia during the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009. Another of Markelov’s clients, Mikhail Beketov, editor of the pro-opposition newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda of Khimki, was severely beaten in November 2008 and remains hospitalized in serious condition in Moscow. CPJ reported that Beketov had heavily criticized the Khimki administration’s decision to cut down a large area of forest in order to build a freeway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he had received multiple threats and was often at odds with the local government.
In December 2008, a local correspondent for the Regnum news agency was attacked and beaten by two unidentified assailants in the North Caucasus republic of Karachai-Cherkessiya, and editor of the Murmansk-based online regional news agency RIA 51, Shafig Amrakhov, was shot in the head, dying from his wounds a week later.
On December 22, CPJ reported that at least a dozen journalists were detained and beaten by riot police in Vladivostok. The journalists were covering a rally to oppose the government’s plans to increase tariffs on imported cars.
On February 5, CPJ reported that Aleksei Venediktov, editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, had found a “veiled threat” in the form of an ax stuck into a log by his door and a video camera left in front of his apartment.
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor