Suspicion of Kremlin's tack in Politkovskaya murder case

The Russian journalist's colleagues and other critics welcomed the police's arrest of 10 suspects Monday, but worry that the government's assessment is politically colored.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Ten months after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, officials this week announced the first fruits of a state investigation: the arrest of 10 suspects, including a Chechen crime boss, an officer of state security, a high-ranking policeman, and three former cops.

Colleagues and experts commended the professionalism of the investigation, but expressed concern about the conclusions Kremlin officials were drawing before the investigation had been completed.

Most notably, they were alarmed that chief prosecutor Yury Chaika's remarks suggested he will consider no possibilities other than the Russian authorities' long-favored theory that Ms. Politkovskaya's murder was ordered by anti-Kremlin emigres intent on overthrowing President Vladimir Putin.

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"I consider Chaika's comments on the motives behind the murder to be political, with no basis in the investigation documents," Dmitry Muratov, Politkovskaya's editor at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told the independent Interfax agency.

The paper, which published many hard-hitting pieces by Politkovskaya on corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya, has conducted its own investigation into who ordered her contract-style killing in her Moscow apartment complex on Oct. 7, 2006, and why. It has also cooperated with the state investigation.

Among those arrested were members of a Moscow crime gang, led by an ethnic Chechen, that specialized in contract murders. Mr. Chaika said the same group might be implicated in other unsolved killings, including that of American journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was shot outside his Moscow office three years ago, and last September's murder of reforming Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov.

Several former and serving police officers were arrested, including Pavel Ryaguzov, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB security service, who's accused of gathering intelligence on Politkovskaya in preparation for the hit, Chaika said.

"It looks like good police work has been done, and the suspects are credible," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, an independent media watchdog group. "But it is surrounded by speculation, which causes worries."

That has a familiar ring. Within days of Politkovskaya's murder, Kremlin spin doctors were fingering the self-exiled tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, as a likely culprit. Russian officials have also blamed Mr. Berezovsky, a political refugee in Britain, in the fatal poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, and an ongoing FSB investigation has implicated him as an agent of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency. Berezovsky's in absentia trial on charges of fraud and embezzlement stemming from 1990s business dealings, plus recently added allegations of sedition, opened in Moscow in July.

Berezovsky, an intractable foe of Putin, has admitted to supporting anti-Kremlin opposition groups, but told Radio Free Europe Tuesday that Chaika's attempt to link him with the Politkovskaya murder is a "hysterical reaction" to his political activities.

Experts say Berezovsky might certainly be a legitimate suspect, but that Chaika appears to be a priori ruling out any other possibilities, such as competing Kremlin factions with an interest in political turmoil and members of the security services or pro-Moscow Chechen warlords who may have been angered by Politkovskaya's tough reporting on Chechnya.

"There is no reason to doubt the efficiency of the police investigation, but there is a significant political share in all this," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow.

He says officials timed the announcement of the arrests to preempt opposition rallies planned for Politkovskaya's birthday on Thursday.

"The allegation that the crime was planned by 'people from abroad' is a political, not a legal, statement," he says. "I realize this looks a bit bizarre from a Western perspective, but it is in the nature of Russia's political regime these days to assert that all things happen as a result of a particular political conspiracy."

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