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Judge's Removal Sought In Politkovskaya Murder Trial

Lawyer Murad Musayev speaks to the press outside the court in Moscow.

Lawyer Murad Musayev speaks to the press outside the court in Moscow.

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- The trial of three men accused of helping to murder Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was in disarray after the prosecution demanded the judge be dismissed from the case.

The request was made during a chaotic hearing when journalists were first barred from the courtroom, then let in and then ushered out again. A jury member was dismissed for talking to the press.

Politkovskaya, a fierce Kremlin critic, was shot dead outside her apartment two years ago, causing an outcry in the West over Russia's commitment to press freedom.

The trial of the three alleged accomplices in her murder is widely viewed as a test of Russia's justice system, which in the past has failed to put the main suspects behind bars in several politically charged murder cases.

Murat Musayev, a lawyer for the defense, told reporters outside the courtroom that prosecutors had asked for Judge Yevgeny Zubov to be taken off the case soon after he lifted his own ban on media covering the trial.

"The state prosecution in the case has announced a petition to remove the judge," a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said later by telephone, adding that the grounds for the petition were breaches of procedural rules.

The prosecution had requested that the court be closed to the media, citing the possibility that it might hear evidence from a state security agent who is being tried alongside the three suspects, on charges unrelated to Politkovskaya's murder.

The judge last week ruled that the trial would be held behind closed doors, drawing fierce criticism from Politkovskaya's family, who alleged a cover-up.

But about 30 minutes into the hearing on November 25, journalists waiting outside the courtroom were allowed in, said a Reuters reporter at the scene. Journalists were later asked to leave again so the court could discuss procedural issues.

The judge told the court he was dismissing one of the jurors, Yevgeny Kolyesov, for breaking rules on not discussing the case in public. The juror last week gave a radio interview challenging the judge's decision to exclude the press.

A 48-year-old mother of two, Politkovskaya had reported on human rights abuses in Russia's turbulent Chechnya region and elsewhere, and had received numerous threats.

Her murder was one of the highest-profile killings during former President Vladimir Putin's eight-year rule.

Dzhabrail Makhmudov and Ibragim Makhmudov, brothers from Chechnya, are accused of helping arrange Politkovskaya's murder along with former policeman Sergei Khadzhikurbanov. They all deny the charges.

Politkovskaya's family says the investigation is incomplete because the man suspected of pulling the trigger, Rustam Makhmudov, is on the run and no one has been charged with ordering the killing.

Russian prosecutors have previously said the murder was ordered by someone living abroad with the aim of discrediting the Kremlin.

But defense lawyer Musayev said the prosecution case had identified the person suspected of ordering the murder as "a politician" inside Russia, without naming the suspect.

Colleagues from the newspaper where Politkovskaya worked have alleged the authorities want the trial held behind closed doors so that embarrassing details about the investigation are not made public.