MOSCOW – A Moscow judge on Friday upheld a jury's acquittal of three defendants accused of murdering Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, leaving many in Russia's beleaguered human rights community aghast at what they are calling official obstruction of justice.
Judge Yevgeny Zubov ordered investigators to return to square one in the hunt for those who planned and carried out the October 2006 assassination of Ms. Politkovskaya, a sharp Kremlin critic who documented Russian human rights abuses in the rebel region of Chechnya.
"The criminal probe must return to the prosecutors' investigative committee with the aim of finding the individuals linked to the committing of this crime," Mr. Zubov said.
Few of Politkovskaya's friends and supporters are blaming the jury of 12, who on Thursday unanimously agreed that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence to convict Chechen brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov of being accomplices in the contract-style murder. Instead, they blame Russian authorities for conducting a half-hearted, often inept investigation followed by a shoddy and error-plagued trial.
"This verdict reflects a complete failure of the official investigation" into Politkovskaya's death, says Oleg Orlov, director of the Memorial Center, Russia's largest independent human rights watchdog. "Unfortunately, there was no independent investigation, nor an independent court, and we can only view this verdict in a political context."
Critics complain that the three-month trial was marred by repeated irregularities and efforts to bar public observers. The case against the three "small fry" defendants was full of holes, they say, and at no time did prosecutors produce or even name suspects accused of actually killing Politkovskaya or the mastermind who ordered her death.
"We believe the defendants who have been set free were actually involved in the murder," says Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the crusading weekly Novaya Gazeta – Politkovskaya's employer – which conducted its own parallel investigation into the assassination. "But we respect the verdict of the jury. The problem is that our legal system is corrupt from top to bottom, and one part of the system protects the other. They make it nearly impossible to get to the bottom of this."
Mr. Sokolov alleges that the case was politicized from the outset by top officials, including chief prosecutor Yury Chaika, who publicly blamed anti-Kremlin exiles abroad for ordering the murder to embarass then-President Vladimir Putin.
"This created political obstacles for the investigators," he says. "There were so many [official obstacles] like this, and so much time wasted chasing down this kind of information."
On the other hand, the Kremlin accused critics who suggested Mr. Putin should be held accountable for Politkovskaya's death of "Russophobia" and alleged that the Western media were using the case to launch a propaganda campaign against Moscow.
Many critics saw Politkovskaya's killing as possibly linked with the suspicious deaths of other Kremlin foes. Human rights organizations say the outcome of the trial highlights the plight of investigative journalists in Russia: some 20 have been killed in the past nine years.
The US officially expressed dismay at the apparent failure of Russian justice on Friday. "We regret that [Politkovskaya's] murder is remaining unsolved," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told journalists. "We urge the Russians to try and find those who are responsible and bring them to justice as quickly as possible."