Russian authorities have replaced the lead detective in the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, whose allies say they fear the move may be aimed at stifling a full investigation into the crime.
Lawyers for two suspects in the case say they were informed that Igor Krasnov, a respected top detective with Russia’s federal Investigative Committee, has been pulled off the investigation and handed a promotion.
They say he was replaced by Nikolai Tutevich, a detective who has led murder investigations with links to Russia's restive North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier praised the investigation into Nemtsov's killing near the Kremlin in February, which led to the arrest of five men from Russia's North Caucasus region on suspicion of involvement in the crime. They deny their guilt.
Netmsov's family and allies said they were troubled by Krasnov’s removal from the case given his reputation as a skilled investigator. He led the team investigating the 2009 killing of human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova.
Two Russian ultranationalists were convicted for that crime and handed sentences of life and 18 years, respectively.
Vadim Prokhorov, a lawyer for Nemtsov’s family, expressed wariness about the shake-up.
"If the investigation will continue to try to find the organizers and those who ordered the crime, then it means that this replacement really was a necessity," Prokhorov was quoted as saying by Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.
“But if they tell us that all of those who were involved have been found and there is no need to search for anyone else, then this replacement is a political decision,” he added.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was one of Putin's harshest critics and a vocal opponent of the Kremlin's interference in Ukraine. He was shot dead on the evening of February 27 as he walked home with his girlfriend.
The chief suspect, Zaur Dadayev, has said he initially confessed to involvement in order to win the freedom of an acquaintance. A human rights activist who met with Dadayev in jail said there were signs he had been tortured.
Federal investigators have said a possible motive for Nemtsov's killing could have been anger over his pro-free-speech position on the deadly Islamist militant attack in January on Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Kremlin-backed head Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, defended Dadayev in a statement posted on Instagram on March 8, calling him a "true patriot" and a deeply pious Muslim who was shocked by the cartoons.
Lawyers, allies of Nemtsov, and relatives of Dadayev have said they do not believe that anger over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons or Nemtsov's position on the issue was the motive in his killing.
Nemtsov's killing has also sparked speculation of a deepening rift in Russia's ruling elite, pitting security agencies and powerful officials including Kadyrov against one another.
Ilya Yashin, a friend and political ally of Nemtsov's, alluded to this purported standoff in a May 15 Facebook post addressing Krasnov’s removal from the investigation.
"Krasnov’s exit from the Nemtsov case essentially demonstrates that the main security official in the country is Ramzan Kadyrov," Yashin wrote.
He noted that Krasnov’s replacement, Tutevich, led the investigation into the 2009 murder of Ruslan Yamadayev, a former State Duma deputy from Chechnya who was gunned down in central Moscow in 2008.
Three men from Chechnya were convicted for carrying out the murder of Yamadayev, who belonged to a powerful clan that rivaled Kadyrov, but no one was ever charged with ordering the killing.
"It’s becoming clear that the investigation will be limited to trying only the people who carried out Netmsov’s murder," Yashin wrote.
He added that Krasnov "is a complex person, but without a doubt a professional” whose appointment to the Nemtsov case "gave hope that the crime will be solved."
Russian news outlets cited unidentified Investigative Committee sources as confirming that Krasnov had been replaced as head of the team investigating Nemtsov’s murder.
Dadayev’s lawyer, Ivan Gerasimov, was quoted by RBK as saying that Krasnov’s promotion had "long" been in the works.
With reporting by TASS, RIA Novosti, rbc.ru, and Kommersant