In Moscow, Klebnikov murder trial delayed as defendant goes missing

New York, March 14, 2007—The Moscow City Court postponed the start of the second jury trial of two men in the July 2004 slaying of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov after one of the defendants went missing, according to local and international press reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to locate defendant Kazbek Dukuzov and resume trial proceedings promptly.

Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev are accused of gunning down the 41-year-old U.S. journalist on a Moscow street. Neither defendant appeared in court on February 15 when their retrial was initially scheduled to start; at the time, their lawyers cited illness and family reasons for the absences, local reports said.

Vakhayev was in court today, but court officials adjourned the proceedings until Dukuzov could be located, according to local press reports. Vakhayev was not taken into pre-trial custody but had to sign a pledge not to leave Moscow, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. Several Russian reports quoted defense lawyer Ruslan Koblev as saying that Dukuzov did not appear in court today because he was hospitalized in Chechnya.

“We call on authorities to locate Kazbek Dukuzov, determine why he failed to meet his court obligation, and impose appropriate sanctions,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

On May 5, 2006, following a four-month-long trial, a Moscow City Court jury acquitted Dukuzov and Vakhayev of murdering Klebnikov. The 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.

But CPJ sources close to the trial said the measures did not guarantee the safety and impartiality of jurors, who were not sequestered and could be readily approached entering or exiting the courtroom. The presiding judge at the time, 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.

Six months after the verdict, on November 9, 2006 Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittal of Dukuzov and Vakhayev and ordered a retrial. But the defendants were not taken into pre-trial custody then, kindling fears that they might leave the country to escape prosecution, CPJ sources said.

“Impunity in journalist murders is a pressing problem for Russia as President Putin acknowledged during his February 1 press conference at the Kremlin,” Simon said. “An open, fair trial in Klebnikov’s murder would demonstrate Russia’s commitment to solving this problem.”

Klebnikov was shot outside his Moscow office on July 9, 2004. His investigations explored the dangerous synergy of Russian business, politics, and organized crime.

With at least 13 journalists killed execution-style for their work in the past six years, Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for reporters, according to CPJ research.