In Moscow, second Klebnikov murder trial starts tomorrow

New York, February 14, 2007–The second jury trial of two Chechen men charged in the July 2004 slaying of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov will start tomorrow in Moscow. The Committee to Protect Journalists urges court officials to make the proceedings open to the public, to ensure the suspects are present in court, and to sequester the jury.

On May 5, 2006, a Moscow City Court jury acquitted Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev in the murder of Klebnikov, a 41-year-old U.S. journalist. The four-month-long trial was held behind closed doors, and all participants, including the 12 jurors, were silenced by a gag order. Court officials justified the secrecy on the grounds of classified evidence, and the safety of participants.

Authorities failed to guarantee the safety or impartiality of jurors after the proceedings, sources close to the trial told CPJ. Jurors were not sequestered and could be readily approached entering or exiting the courtroom. The then-presiding judge, Vladimir Usov, and other court officials, did not stop the defendants or some defense representatives from making threatening statements in court that could have affected the jury, a CPJ source said. Those and other allegations of procedural violations raised doubts about the validity and fairness of the trial.

“We call on Russian court officials to hold an open trial,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The first trial was riddled with procedural violations that were hidden from the public with closed-door proceedings and a gag order on all participants. We call on Russian court officials to open the hearing to the public to ensure a fair trial.”

For four months following the May 5 verdict, court officials effectively blocked the Klebnikov family’s appeal to the Supreme Court by failing to provide them and their representatives with a transcript of the trial proceedings, which they needed to prepare a detailed appeal. Since the trial proceedings were sealed, and audio and video recording in the courtroom was prohibited, the transcript was the only document detailing the hearing. Russia’s Law of Criminal Procedure requires that access to the transcript be given to the plaintiffs within three days. The Klebnikovs filed their request for access in May and received the transcript in September.

Six months after the verdict, on November 9, 2006, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittal of Dukuzov and Vakhayev and ordered a retrial. Even then, court officials stalled the process by waiting over two months to set a start date for the new trial, and by failing to take the two suspects in the pre-trial custody, CPJ sources said. Dukuzov and Vakhayev were not in custody on Wednesday and it was unclear whether they would be present in court for the trial’s opening.

Tomorrow’s court proceedings will start with jury selection, according to Russian press reports.

Klebnikov was shot outside his Moscow office on July 9, 2004. Russian authorities said they believed he was killed because of his work. He is one of 13 journalists murdered in contract-style killings since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot outside her Moscow apartment in October. In none of the cases have the masterminds been brought to justice and the record of impunity causes journalists to self-censor, CPJ found.

Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to a recent CPJ study.