It was a verdict on a whole system. That is what the liberal, Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, called the acquittal last Thursday in a Moscow court of the three men accused in the sensational murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose brutal slaying in 2006 garnered worldwide condemnation.
“The verdict of the jurors in the case of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya reveals the full bankruptcy of all Russia’s legal-security agencies,” stated the feisty, independent newspaper, where Politkovskaya worked until her death at the young age 48.
Politkovskaya, who was once described as “a living, breathing enemy” of former Russian president Vladimir Putin, was one of Russia’s best and most influential investigative journalists. Her coverage of human-rights abuses in Chechnya, as well as her anti-corruption investigations, had earned her an international reputation as well as many death threats and enemies among Chechen and Russian politicians. But in October 2006, her impressive career came to a tragic end.
On October 7, 2006, the mother of two grown children was fatally shot five times in the elevator of her apartment building. The first bullet struck her in the head, while the next three hit her in the chest, hip and throat. As she lay on the floor, the killer fired a final “insurance” shot, again to the head, before dropping a 9-millimeter Makarov pistol at her side and walking out to a waiting car. Video cameras showed that the killer had rehearsed her murder three times in the days leading up to the shooting. The murder took just 24 seconds.
Getting justice for Politkovskaya will take much longer. Such is the signal sent by the decision of 12 Russian jurors to acquit three men – two Chechen brothers and a former policeman – on trial since last November on charges of accessory to Politkovskaya’s murder. The defendants were released immediately with one of the Chechens yelling “Allah Ahkbar” (God is great!).
From the very beginning, observers described the trial as a farce. For one thing, the three accused were always regarded as peripheral figures in the murder. One Chechen brother was accused of being the lookout and the other the driver, while the former policeman was believed to have provided logistics for the assassination. Neither the suspected killer, a third Chechen brother, nor those who ordered the killing were brought to trial. Indeed, they have never even been investigated, leaving the crime’s background a murky mystery.
Politkovskaya’s children, who agreed with the jury’s verdict, regarded the defendants as mere pawns. They did not want the prosecution to go to trial until all versions of their mother’s murder had been investigated, but their concerns were ignored. Once a Chechen connection was established, Russian authorities refused to investigate other possibilities.
Disturbing developments surrounded the case. One concerned a Russian newspaper’s printing of “explosive details” of the investigation. Some believe this information was deliberately leaked to warn the third Chechen brother to flee. A CD with evidence also disappeared, while other CDs with a record of the Chechen brothers’ cell phone calls at the time of the murder were for sale at a market. A German newspaper reported that this is not unusual in Russia. CDs containing personal information are often for sale at such markets.
Meanwhile, the trial judge caused a scandal of his own, when he tried to bar the media from the trial on the excuse that the jurors had requested it. But the jurors, outraged by this false assertion, signed a letter demanding that the media be granted access. One juror, a roofer by trade, approached a radio station and related on air how the judge had tried to manipulate the jury to ban the press and about the jurors’ petition. His efforts were instrumental in getting the media back into the courtroom, but he was, as he expected, released from jury duty.
What most troubled observers about the trial was how interconnected the police, criminal gangs and the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB) were in the murder – and how they successfully avoided any scrutiny over their possible role in Politkovskaya’s assassination. For instance, an FSB man, who is facing charges for misusing his office, supplied the Chechen gang, which is reported to specialize in contract murders, with Politkovskaya’s address. Her killing was supposed to be organized by the three brothers’ uncle; but he was serving a 12-year sentence for the attempted murder of a Ukrainian businessman. The uncle then turned the job over to the former policeman.
It turns out in the days before her death Politkovskaya was being watched not only by the Chechens but also by the FSB. At the trial, it was stated the FSB also provided the killer with identity papers, with which he could hide in Western Europe. The gang also got a reported $2 million for the job, but it was never investigated who paid the money. Novaya Gazeta also reported to police the death threats made against Politkovskaya right until the time of her murder, as well as the fact that there were suspicious-looking men hanging around her apartment building. The paper said it is still waiting for a reply.
Besides inadequate investigation, a major reason for last Thursday’s acquittals was that the prosecution did not present its case very well. Anna Savitskaya, a lawyer representing the Politkovskaya family at the trial, said Russian prosecutors believe they can show up in court with any kind of evidence and get a guilty verdict from a judge, but face difficulties in a jury trial. “This trial shows that the whole system of prosecutors and investigators is helpless when confronted by an independent court and with a professional defense,” said Savitskaya.
Politkovskaya is only the most famous victim of what is becoming an increasingly perilous environment for Russian journalists. Sixteen Russian journalists have been slain since 2000, four of them Novaya Gazeta reporters. The most recent Novaya Gazeta victim, 25-year-old Anastasia Barburova, was shot dead on a busy Moscow street in broad daylight last month while her killer walked nonchalantly away – a grim echo of Politkovskaya’s murder. And since there has been only one conviction for such murders -- five men were convicted in August 2007 for the 2000 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Igor Domnikov -- the acquittals in the Politkovskaya case are likely to reinforce the message that journalists critical of the Kremlin are fair game in Russia.