Moscow, 30 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Liberal politician Galina Starovoitova was shot dead on 20 November 1998 as she climbed the stairs to her flat in central St. Petersburg.
More than six years later, the first participants in the murder have finally been handed prison sentences.
The St. Petersburg City Court sentenced Yurii Kolchin, a former intelligence officer, to 20 years in prison for orchestrating the killing. Vitalii Akishin was handed a 23 1/2-year sentence for pulling the trigger. Both were found guilty on charges of perpetrating a terrorist act and murder for political purposes.
The four other defendants -- Igor Lelyavin, Igor Krasnov, Aleksei Voronin, and Yurii Yonov -- helped carry out separate parts of the assassination scheme and supplied weapons. They were acquitted by the judges, who ruled they had not been informed of the intention to murder Starovoitova at the time they acted, or that they had helped clear evidence of the murder before it actually took place.
"It is important to say that the investigation into the assassination of Galina Starovoitova is not over. The middleman in the organization of the murder and the person who commissioned it are still free." - Linkov
Ruslan Linkov was Starovoitova's aide and was with her when she was killed. He suffered severe gunshot wounds to his head and neck. He says he is happy the court ruled that the killing was politically motivated and handed long prison sentences to Kolchin and Akishin.
But he stressed that the murder case is far from closed. "I am satisfied that the court has made an important decision that condemned the technical organizer of the murder of Galina Vassilievna Starovoitova, Yurii Kolchin, and the direct executor of this murder, Akishin," Linkov said. "But it is important to say that the investigation into the assassination of Galina Starovoitova is not over. The middleman in the organization of the murder and the person who commissioned it are still free."
Of all six defendants, Voronin was the only one to plead guilty to all charges and to apologize to the victims and their relatives. Prosecutors had asked for life imprisonment for Kolchin and Akishin and for prison sentences ranging between 4 1/2 to 15 years for the other defendants.
A number of other suspects have yet to be brought before the court. Some are still at large. Search warrants have been issued for three more suspects, while the brother of one of the defendants cleared Thursday is pending trial, together with another man extradited from Belgium last December for suspected involvement in the murder.
While Linkov views the prison sentences given to Kolchin and Akishin as fair, he fears they will be quickly released on probation.
"I hope that in 10 years, these convicts will not be released early on probation. It happens in our country that people sentenced for a serious crime, a terrorist act or a murder, are freed relatively rapidly. I hope they will serve their sentence in decent conditions," Linkov said.
As for the other four defendants, Linkov does not seem disappointed by their acquittal. He says they have already paid the price for taking part in the killing. "Even those who were cleared today were punished anyway in a sense, because they spent almost two years behind bars, and their names were quoted in newspapers," he said. "I think this can seriously affect their future and their biographies."
Those who ordered the slaying, however, have yet to be named, let alone brought to justice. Linkov and Starovoitova's sister have repeatedly declared they will consider the case closed only when those who commissioned the killing are sitting behind bars.
Linkov says he has reason to think those who ordered Starovoitova's murder are too high-ranking to be prosecuted. "The middleman in the organization of the murder -- the person who received the commission and transmitted it to the criminal group that was sentenced today -- is blackmailing the person who commissioned the killing or the high-ranking officials who surround him," he said. "He says if he is arrested, he will give names."
Starovoitova was one of the leaders of the democracy movement in what was then Leningrad during the Perestroika era. She was also a prominent human-rights advocate.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed her his chief adviser for ethnic affairs. She rapidly became one of the most outspoken critics of the war in Chechnya. Starovoitova gained a seat in the State Duma in 1995. In 1996, she was the only woman to be nominated for the Russian presidency.
She is buried in St. Petersburg's Aleksandr Nevskii Monastery.