Man charged, sought in Politkovskaya murder

New York, May 12, 2008—The Investigative Committee at Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office announced today that 34-year-old ethnic Chechen Rustam Makhmudov has been charged in absentia with murdering Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, according to local news reports. The Investigative Committee issued an international warrant for Makhmudov’s arrest.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told journalists that seven suspects allegedly involved in Politkovskaya’s murder remain in custody as of today. Makhmudov is the alleged triggerman.

“We call on the Russian authorities to work with their international partners toward the swift apprehension and prosecution of the suspected murderer of our colleague Anna Politkovskaya,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.

To this day, authorities have released no information as to the status of the investigation into the masterminds of Politkovskaya’s killing. Journalists at Novaya Gazeta, who are conducting their own investigation into their colleague’s murder, say they believe the mastermind is in Russia, not overseas.

Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research. Since 2000 alone, 14 journalists have been murdered for their work and in only one of these killings—that of Novaya Gazeta’s Igor Domnikov—have the killers been convicted; the masterminds, however, remain at large.

“We urge Russia’s new leadership to break the cycle of impunity that mars the country’s press freedom record by bringing to justice all those responsible for this brutal crime,” Ognianova said. “Full justice can be achieved only when both the triggermen and masterminds are brought to trial.”

This was the first official announcement confirming the identity of Politkovskaya’s alleged killer after his name was first leaked to the press in late March. According to Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov, the leak has significantly hampered the investigation and facilitated the killer’s efforts to avoid arrest.

“As a whole, we are satisfied with the investigation of the triggerman and the organizers of the crime,” Muratov told CPJ. “But it is unclear what [authorities] are doing to find and prosecute the masterminds.”

Markin told journalists today that seven of the nine people charged with involvement in Politkovskaya’s October 7, 2006, assassination remain in custody. Two have been released but are banned from leaving the country, Markin said.

Makhmudov’s brothers—ethnic Chechens Ibragim, Dzhabrail, and Tamerlan Makhmudov—remain as suspects in prison.

Also in custody are Shamil Burayev, the former head of the Achkhoi-Martan administrative district of Chechnya, who, the investigation says, organized the murder; Pavel Ryaguzov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, who were allegedly responsible for the surveillance of the journalist and the “technical support” of the crime, local press reported.

Suspects Magomed Demelkhanov and Dmitry Grachyov have been released after signing an agreement not to leave the country, according to local news reports. The official investigation said the two played only a secondary role in Politkovskaya’s killing.

The Associated Press reported that today’s announcement by the Investigative Committee about Demelkhanov’s and Grachyov’s conditional release from custody “appeared to raise eyebrows at the Prosecutor-General’s Office,” highlighting the simmering conflict between the two law enforcement agencies. The two operate under the same mandate but work in relative independence from each other. The Prosecutor-General’s Office said the Investigative Committee had “broken routine practice” by not notifying it about the releases, the AP said.

Today’s announcement by the Investigative Committee broke a months-long official silence in the official Politkovskaya murder probe. In late August 2007, Russian authorities announced the arrest of 11 suspects in the journalist’s contract-style killing. (Three were subsequently released from custody.) Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika said at the time that Politkovskaya was killed on the order of overseas enemies aiming to destabilize Russia.

Politkovskaya, special correspondent for the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was well known for her investigative reports on corruption, torture, and human rights abuses committed by local and federal officials in Chechnya and the volatile North Caucasus. In seven years of covering the second Chechen war, Politkovskaya’s reporting repeatedly drew the wrath of Russian authorities. She was threatened, jailed, forced into exile, and poisoned during her career, CPJ research shows.

On the first anniversary of the slaying, CPJ sent a letter to then President Vladimir Putin, asking for a diligent and transparent investigation that is free of political bias; it received no response.