The Moscow City Court has sentenced to jail terms ranging from 12 years to life five Chechen men whom a jury found guilty last month of the murder in October 2006 of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. All five pleaded not guilty.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Politkovskaya won widespread respect and renown for her coverage of the fighting in Chechnya, the misery and human rights violations that ensued, and corruption and brutality among the pro-Moscow leadership Russian President Vladimir Putin installed to succeed democratically elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Politkovskaya’s colleague Dmitry Muratov estimates that she wrote more than 500 such articles for the independent newspaper "Novaya gazeta" of which he is editor.
The five men sentenced for killing her are: Lom-Ali Gaytukayev, a crime boss currently serving a prison term for another contract killing, who is accused of masterminding the murder at the behest of unnamed individuals angered by Politkovskaya’s revelations of corruption and human rights violations; his nephews Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, accused of driving the getaway car; their elder brother Rustam Makhmudov, identified as the killer who shot Politkovskaya five times in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow; and former Moscow policeman Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, who is said to have organized surveillance of Politkovskaya’s movements prior to her death.
Rustam Makhmudov and Gaytukayev were jailed for life; Khadzhikurbanov for 20 years; and Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov for 14 and 12 years respectively.
The judge overruled the argument by their defense lawyers that the guilty verdict was illegal because just 30 minutes before the jury withdrew, he had replaced one of its members who had urged her fellow jurors to step down.
The court likewise rejected the defense’s objections that the prosecution failed to provide any evidence of the men’s guilt or determine what motive they had for the murder.
In the wake of the murder, numerous hypotheses were expounded about why and by whom Politkovskaya had been killed. The eight most plausible, as enumerated by the website Caucasus Knot, are as follows:
- The Chechen Republic leadership, including then-Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, commissioned and organized the murder. Interviewed by Politkovskaya in June 2004, Kadyrov branded her "an enemy" and "a liar." Her description of his general demeanour and how he treated subordinates is less than flattering. When Politkovskaya asked Kadyrov what branch of law he was writing his dissertation on, he replied: "I've forgotten. But I’ve got it written down somewhere."
- The Russian authorities were behind the murder.
- Politkovskaya was killed to discredit Putin and Kadyrov. Putin’s birthday is October 6, the day of the murder, Kadyrov’s is one day earlier.
- Politkovskaya’s death was advantageous to the West (why is not clear, unless because it reflected badly on Putin).
- The murder was commissioned by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky denied any connection, but the Russian authorities have apparently not totally ruled out that possibility. According to Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin, Russia is still waiting for responses from the United Kingdom and Turkey to requests for legal assistance in connection with Politkovskaya’s death. Berezovsky lived in Britain from 2000 until his death in March 2013.
- Politkovskaya was killed by former Interior Ministry officers from the Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug in revenge for articles that led to the conviction of one of their colleagues for murder.
- The murder was undertaken by a person or people devoted to someone whose misdeeds Politkovskaya chronicled.
- Politkovskaya was killed by extreme nationalists who considered her “an enemy of the Russian people.”
In the summer of 2007, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika announced that the murder had been solved and that it had been committed by members of a prominent criminal grouping. Eleven suspects were arrested, including former Chechen local official Shamil Burayev, but he and seven others were subsequently released.
The remaining three -- Khadzhikurbanov and Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov -- went on trial in October 2008, but in February 2009 a jury found them not guilty.
The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office appealed the acquittal, however, and a new investigation was launched, which led to the arrest two years later, in March 2011, of the Makhmudovs’ elder brother Rustam.
The turning point came in August 2011 with the arrest of a second former police officer, retired Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, who had been a witness for the prosecution during the first trial. Pavlyuchenkov admitted to his role in the murder, for which he was tried in a separate case and jailed for 11 years.
According to the defense lawyers, the prosecution’s case in the second trial was based largely on Pavlyuchenkov’s testimony.
Specifically, Pavlyuchenkov said that he organized surveillance by former colleagues under Khadzhikurbanov’s guidance of Politkovskaya’s movements and passed the details to Gaytukayev, who had paid him $150,000 for his services. Khadzhikurbanov denies this, claiming Pavlyuchenkov incriminated him out of personal spite.
Pavlyuchenkov also said he provided Rustam Makhmudov with the murder weapon.
The defense has consistently highlighted the absence of material evidence to support the prosecution’s case. They argued that the man seen on video surveillance footage entering Politkovskaya’s apartment building before the murder and the man who left afterwards, whom Pavlyuchenkov identified with 80 percent certainty as Rustam Makhmudov even though the defense insists he bore no resemblance to Makhmudov, are two different people (one was wearing a black jacket and the other a white jacket). They further pointed out that given the time lag between when Politkovskaya entered the building loaded down with grocery shopping and the man identified as the killer emerged, the latter would have had just 24 seconds in which to run down half a flight of stairs, fire five shots through the slowly closing elevator door, change his jacket, and exit the building.
What is more, the defense stressed the failure of the prosecution to account for the absence of Rustam Makhmudov's fingerprints either in the vehicle identified as the getaway car or on the murder weapon, and the presence on that gun and elsewhere at the scene of the crime of an unidentified woman’s DNA.
In March, presiding judge Pavel Melekhin refused to allow the use of a lie-detector while the accused were being questioned.
Rustam Makhmudov denies he or his brothers had anything to do with killing, and says he met Khadzhikurbanov, to whom his uncle had introduced him, twice at most. Defense lawyer Murad Musayev has said he was convinced that it was Pavlyuchenkov who masterminded the murder.
In a press release after the jury found the five accused guilty, Amnesty International said that verdict “marks only a small step towards justice. The process has left too many questions unanswered and full justice will not be served until those who ordered the crime are identified and face the courts.”
-- Liz Fuller