In an embarrassing blow to Russian prosecutors, a jury in Moscow has acquitted four men charged in connection with the October 2006 contract-style killing of journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya.
The court ruled on February 19 that brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov were not guilty of acting as accomplices in the assassination and that former police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was not guilty of organizing the crime. The three could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Also acquitted was Pavel Ryaguzov, a former agent with the Federal Security Service who was not directly accused of being involved in the killing, but was charged with extortion in relation to the case.
"Justice has triumphed," Murad Musayev, a defense lawyer for the Makhmudov brothers, told reporters after the verdicts were announced.
"If we had another decision here, it would mean that the real criminals, who are still somewhere among us, would continue what they did before. We can only stop these kinds of crimes which take away the best of the people of this nation...if we find the real criminals."
When the verdict was read, the Makhmudov brothers, standing in a cage in the courtroom, hugged each other. Their mother, Zalpa, wept and shouted "Bravo!" from the public gallery.
"Thank God. We're really happy. We're thankful to everyone who cared about us," Dzhabrail Makhmudov said after being released.
Makhmudov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he wishes Russian investigators good luck and that he hopes the real killers are found soon.
The prosecution said it would appeal the verdict, which is allowed in Russian criminal cases.
The acquittals represent an embarrassing defeat for prosecutors, whose case was widely criticized in the Russian media as riddled with holes and inconsistencies.
Politkovskaya's family and colleagues, who had argued that the defendants were mere pawns and the trial was an attempt to whitewash the investigation, called for the true killers now be brought to justice.
"We demand, we need the real killers, the real killers," Karina Moskalenko, an attorney representing Politkovskaya's family, told reporters.
Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother of two who published scathing exposes of official corruption and human rights abuses in breakaway Chechnya for the weekly newspaper "Novaya gazeta," was shot dead in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006, after returning home from the supermarket.
Politkovskaya's fierce criticism of the Kremlin, coupled with the fact that the assassination took place on then-President Vladimir Putin's birthday, raised suspicion of official involvement -- or tacit acquiescence -- in the killing.
The Kremlin denied any involvement, saying the murder was an attempt to discredit Russia.
During the trial, defense attorneys pointed out that the suspects' DNA had not been found on the weapon and that phone calls made by the accused at the time did not prove their presence at the murder scene.
A witness also told the court that one of the defendants worked as a secret agent for the Russian security services, but did not provide further details.(Flash Analysis: Rinat Valiulin, the executive editor of RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, explains that the verdict is unlikely to provoke a strong reaction in Russia, and the investigation is not expected to continue.)
"The trial also proves that the authorities -- I mean a certain number of officials in this case -- are not interested in finding either those who were involved in the killing, or those who personally took part in the killing, or those who masterminded it," says Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.
Panfilov adds, however, that the jury's acquittal has given some hope that Russia's courts, which are notoriously susceptible to political pressure, could render independent decisions.
"I think that in some way juries are like small sprouts of Russian democracy. Because while it is easy to frighten or to bribe one judge, it is much more difficult to persuade an entire jury with such methods," Panfilov says.
The State Duma recently passed legislation eliminating jury trials for a series of crimes, including: terrorism, hostage-taking, mass disturbances, rebellion, espionage, diversion, organizing unlawful armed formations, treason, and attempts to seize power by force.'Official Restrictions'
Rights analysts and legal analysts say that the weak case the prosecutors presented suggests they were operating under some kind of official restrictions.
"Obviously the prosecutors failed to convince the jurors that the defendants were guilty. Is it because the prosecutors were restricted by someone? Is it because the prosecutors restricted themselves? Is it because they can't work otherwise? It is a question," Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial human rights group told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
He added that the court refused to consider evidence "that could have provided a broader perspective" on the assassination plot.
Likewise, Leonid Nikitinsky of the Court Reporters' Guild says the verdict only increases suspicion of possible official involvement in the killing.
"The law enforcement bodies were involved. It is perfectly obvious that they were involved," Nikitinsky says. "Any criminal case is so complex that if you take one link out, the whole picture falls apart. My assumption -- and it's only an assumption -- is that they tried to pull someone out and the fabric of evidence fell apart."
Observers said the Politkovskaya trial recalled the case of Paul Klebnikov, a U.S. journalist shot dead in Moscow in 2004. His suspected killers were acquitted and attempted retrials have been delayed because some of the defendants cannot be tracked down.
- Oct. 15, 2008: Lawyer Karina Moskalenko, due to represent the Politkovskaya family, said before the trial opened that she found poisonous mercury in her car in Strasbourg, France.
- Nov. 17, 2008: The court orders a public trial for the three suspects, rejecting a prosecution request for a closed hearing.
- Nov. 19, 2008: Judge Yevgeny Zubov bars the public from the trial. The judge said jurors refused to enter the courtroom with reporters present. A juror gives an interview challenging this account. Reporters are allowed to be present during some, but not all, hearings.
- Nov. 26, 2008: Prosecutors show the courtroom the bullets they say killed Politkovskaya two years ago.
- Nov. 27, 2008: Jurors are shown photos of Politkovskaya entering her Moscow apartment building just before she was shot. The prosecution says the man in the photos -- who it says shot Politkovskaya -- is not one of the three defendants in court.
- Dec. 2, 2008: A trial witness says one of the three on trial had worked as a secret agent for Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB.
- Feb. 16, 2009: A lawyer for Politkovskaya's family tells the court the three accused were just pawns. Moskalenko appeared to direct the blame for the murder at the authorities, but did not identify any individuals.
- Feb. 19, 2009: The jury returns its verdict.