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Politkovskaya Defendants Ordered To Face New Trial

  • Kevin O'Flynn

Anna Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of the Kremlin.

Anna Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of the Kremlin.

MOSCOW -- Russia's Supreme Court has overturned the acquittals of three defendants in the shooting of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, ordering a retrial in a case that many observers regard as a key test of authorities' commitment to rule of law.

Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of the Kremlin who often wrote of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

The Supreme Court judge concluded on appeal that there were violations in the original case, and ruled that "the sentence of the Moscow district military court is canceled and the criminal case is sent for a new hearing in the same court."

Former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov is among three defendants who now face a new trial.
"We believe that the court [of review] made a fair decision in this case," prosecutor Vera Pashkovskaya said in welcoming a new chance to present the state's case. "The court, in its decision, took our arguments into account."

Prosecutors had appealed the verdict in the original case, which ended in February with an acquittal for Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov.

Still At Large?

None of the three had been suspected of being the triggerman in the Politkovskaya case. The Makhmudov brothers were cleared of acting as accomplices in the murder, and Khadzhikurbanov was cleared of organizing the crime.

The case reportedly went before a military court because of the involvement of a fourth defendant -- former Federal Security Service (FSB) Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov -- who initially faced related charges but eventually was later accused of abuse-of-office and extortion.

The repeal of the acquittals came as little surprise to Murad Musayev, the lawyer for the Makhmudov brothers.

"In February, when the verdict was announced we predicted that it would be like this," Musayev told RFE/RL. "We live in the Russian legal system. We're dealing with a political case -- a case where the state is interested in making its mark, where the state is interested in pronouncing the case solved. No other outcome could have been expected."

Politically Loaded

Politkovskaya, a journalist at the opposition paper "Novaya gazeta," was shot dead in the stairwell of her building in downtown Moscow in October 2006.

Her death is one of a number of high-profile killings of journalists and Kremlin critics that have remained unsolved in recent years.

Politkovskaya's children, Vera and Ilya
Politkovskaya's son, Ilya Politkovsky, criticized the court's decision to order a new trial, saying the case needed more investigative work, not another trial.

Politkovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service he believes that the three defendants know something about his mother's death.

"We are still certain that those who were on the court bench are connected -- not guilty, but connected -- and the case should be sent for further investigation," Politkovsky said. "But here at the hearing of the Supreme Court, that means nothing."

'Show' Trial

Journalists who attended the original trial typically characterized the prosecution's case as weak. That impression was echoed by the jurors, who voted unanimously to acquit the three defendants.

"Every day I began to be more and more convinced that I was witnessing some kind of show," one juror told "Novaya gazeta" after the trial's end.

Innocent verdicts are rare in Russian courts, which hand down guilty verdicts in more than 90 percent of cases.

Jury trials, which were only introduced recently in Russia, have dramatically increased innocent verdicts.

Musayev said the growing number of acquittals has irritated court officials. "We have the kind of system that's a car that doesn't allow for breakdowns," he said. "If there are acquittals, then the court system thinks that's bad and [it] needs to quickly fix it -- [as if it were an] annoying mistake of the jury."

A Supreme Court spokesman said the case will be examined again with new jurors.

The Russian criminal code includes a double-jeopardy provision that ostensibly prevents defendants from being tried for crimes twice. But if a court cites procedural violations as its reason for throwing out a case, the initial verdict is rendered void -- and the defendant is technically not being charged twice.

Alevtin Moshansky is the lawyer for Vladimir Kvachkov, the man who was acquitted last year of attempting to kill Anatoly Chubais, the former head of the UES electricity giant. Kvachkov's not-guilty verdict was thrown out in a case very similar to that of the Politkovskaya defendants.

Molshansky says the practice has become common in jury verdicts. "Usually the prosecutors challenge [the verdict], and at the next level, which is usually the Supreme Court, it's canceled because of some procedural violations."

with additional agency reporting