Russia's top investigative body has brought final murder charges against four men for the slaying of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and accused a low-level figure from the Chechnya region of masterminding the killing, drawing accusations of a cover-up.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said final indictments were filed on December 29 against four Chechens, all arrested after Nemtsov was shot dead on February 27 in central Moscow.
The four are Zaur Dadayev, Khamzat Bakhayev, Shadid Gubashev, and Temirlan Eskerkhanov.
Markin said a fifth suspect in custody, Anzor Gubashev, will be charged "in the near future."
Investigators charged the suspects with committing the murder as part of an organized group and illegally purchasing, carrying, transporting, and storing firearms.
Lawyers for at least two of the accused, Dadayev and Eskerkhanov, said they would request a trial by jury.
Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev initially confessed to the crime, according to Russian authorities, but later withdrew their statements to investigators, saying they had been coerced and tortured.
A former deputy prime minister and one of President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics, Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin late on February 27 as he strolled home with his girlfriend. His killing underscored the risks faced by Russians who challenge the government.
An Investigative Committee statement named another Chechen man, Ruslan Mukhudinov, as "the orderer and organizer" of the crime, and said that he remains at large.
Mukhudinov is a member of the Sever battalion, a security force controlled by the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Nemtsov's family, however, has been asking investigators to look into the possibility that Kadyrov could have been involved in the killing and to question Ruslan Geremeyev, a senior Kadyrov lieutenant and an officer in the Sever battalion. Mukhudinov was Geremeyev's driver.
A lawyer for the Nemtsov family, Vadim Prokhorov,expressed skepticism that the chain of command for ordering the killing stops at Mukhudinov, who he said "could not have had his own motive to kill Nemtsov."
Prokhorov said on December 29 that he believes Mukhudinov is "at the very bottom of the chain," and that the killing had been "ordered by high-ranking people."
Prokhorov also said Mukhudinov has been singled out as a scapegoat "in order to deflect attention from Kadyrov's inner circle."
Prokhorov said the statement that investigators believe Mukhudinov masterminded the killing was "a New Year’s gift to Ramzan Kadyrov."
Relatives and allies of Nemtsov fear the outcome of the case may be the same as in other killings of government critics during Putin's 16 years in power, with questions about who was really behind the crime and suspicions that a more thorough investigation would lead close to the Kremlin or Kadyrov.
"It is clear the Russian authorities have no desire to solve the case," Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna Nemtsova, who has called for Kadyrov to be questioned in the case, told the Reuters news agency on December 29.
"If investigators did their work seriously and were not shielding the criminals, Kadyrov and his entourage would have been questioned long ago," said lya Yashin, a political ally of the late Nemtsov.
Putin has relied on Kadyrov for years to maintain order in Chechnya amid an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the North Caucasus following two devastating separatist wars, turning a blind eye to what rights activists say are systematic abuses and unconstitutional law enforcement tactics.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Mukhudinov is suspected of using a fake passport to travel to the United Arab Emirates and is believed to currently reside there.
Markin said on December 29 that detaining Mukhudinov was just "a matter of time."
The Investigative Committee said it was expecting the probe to end in January.
With on reporting by AP, Interfax, RBC, and TASS