Moscow court acquits three defendants in Politkovskaya murder

REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin
Defendants in the murder trial of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya attended a hearing in Moscow Feb. 18, 2009. Pictured are (l. to r.): Ibragim Makhmudov, Dzhabrail Makhmudov, Pavel Ryaguzov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov. Mr. Ryaguzov was accused of extortion related to the case. All were released on Thursday.

MOSCOW -- Attempts to find justice for murdered Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya hit a brick wall Thursday when a Moscow jury acquitted all three defendants in the case.

The defendants, two Chechen brothers and a former police officer, were accused of being accomplices in the contract assassination. Critics have been crying foul since the trial opened last November, since neither the actual killer nor the alleged mastermind who ordered Ms. Politkovskaya's death have ever been caught or even named by authorities.

Politkovskaya, a sharp critic of the Kremlin and tireless chronicler of Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, was gunned down in the entrance to her Moscow apartment building in October 2006.

Lawyers representing Politkovskaya's relatives and her former employer, the crusading Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta, said they were not deterred by the verdict and would seek a fresh investigation.
"We want to see the real killer in the dock, and we will succeed," lawyer Karina Moskalenko told journalists.

The official investigation into Politkovskaya's murder has been dogged by allegations of bias, foot-dragging, and outright incompetence on the part of the prosecutors, chronicled here in a Monitor story.

Key suspects thought to be involved in the planning of the murder, including a former officer of the FSB security service, Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov, were released without explanation.

Critics complained that authorities had already made up their minds that the assassination was carried out by anti-Kremlin exiles abroad, and were not following up any other leads.

But pro-Kremlin commentators slammed back, arguing that anti-Russian prejudice was behind the widespread insistence in the West that then-Russian President Vladimir Putin should be held accountable.

Many critics saw Politkovskaya's murder as possibly linked with the suspicious deaths of several other Kremlin foes, including the bizarre polonium poisoning of ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. (For details of that case, click here.)

Human rights organizations have been quick to blame Russian authorities for Thursday's verdict, which they say only highlights the ongoing threat to dissenting journalists in Russia, where 20 have been killed in the past nine years.

"This verdict is the result of an incomplete investigation that was brought to trial prematurely," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "Until the trigger man and the masterminds are identified, it will be impossible to know who ordered this murder and why. . .. The case cannot be regarded as over."

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