MOSCOW – Russia's Supreme Court on Thursday quashed the acquittals of four men accused of being accomplices in the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and ordered a full retrial in what has become the country's most notorious criminal case.
But friends and colleagues of the slain journalist say they are not heartened by the court's decision, which cited major irregularities in the February jury verdict that set the suspects free . Some Russians say it's just the latest evidence of the official ineptness – some say malfeasance – that may have doomed the case to remain unsolved from the very beginning.
"The Supreme Court has made a political decision, possibly on orders from higher structures," says Nadezhda Prusenkova, press spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta, the crusading opposition weekly the Ms. Politkovskaya wrote for. "The whole process was politicized, and we continue to believe that the people who should have found themselves accused are of a higher rank (than the four suspects who were eventually brought to trial, then acquitted)," she adds.
Two Chechen brothers, Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, and a former police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, were tried on murder charges – although none was accused of being the actual trigger man. A fourth suspect, former officer of the FSB security service Pavel Ryaguzov, was alleged to have "abused his position" by providing the killers with Politkovskaya's address and other information used to locate and target her.
Who's the mastermind?
Novaya Gazeta, which conducted its own parallel investigation into the killing, concluded that the four were probably involved, but they were acting together with a wider group that has evaded arrest and were acting on orders from a "mastermind" who has never been identified.
Some in Russia's increasingly beleaguered journalistic community argue that the Supreme Court-mandated retrial is just part of an official effort to drag the Politkovskaya case out without conclusion, until the world wearies of it.
"This decision sounds OK, as though the 'good' Supreme Court has corrected problems and justice has triumphed," says Yulia Latynina, an investigative journalist who hosts a political commentary show on the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station.
"But the accused have already gone free, and they've run away. In Russia, everything is rigged: the police, prosecution, and courts. This is just a PR action, to create the impression that there's a legal process going on."
Murders of American journalists unsolved
Many killings and beatings of Russian journalists are left unsolved, or never investigated at all. But the murder of Politkovskaya, who held US citizenship (she was born in New York, to a Soviet diplomatic family), and the 2004 slaying of another American journalist, Paul Klebnikov, have sputtered though a seemingly endless series of well-publicized but utterly inconclusive legal procedings.
"We have two examples of Americans being killed, yet the murderer is not found," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, head of information at For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based coalition. "This isn't good for relations with the US, so maybe that's why we have this Supreme Court decision that looks like it's correcting the mistakes of the previous court."
A case of political football
The Politkovskaya case has been a political football within Russia as well. After her 2006 murder, then-President Vladimir Putin vowed to find the killers, but angered many Russians by adding that her influence as a journalist inside Russia had been "extremely insignificant."
His successor, Dmitri Medvedev – seeking to project a more liberal image – granted an unprecedented interview to Novaya Gazeta in March. He explained to the editors that one of his reasons for doing so was his feelings of respect for Politkovskaya and three other journalists for the paper who've died suspiciously in recent years.
The editors of Novaya Gazeta say they still believe justice can prevail.
"We still hope this process won't end with a fresh episode of window-dressing, but that it will seriously seek answers to the as-yet unanswered questions," says Ms. Prusenkova.
"We (at Novaya Gazeta) have never stopped our own investigation, and we know quite a lot about this case by now. We are ready to help, and we do hope that there will be no more obstacles to solving this crime."