A year after Politkovskaya slaying, signals are not encouraging

October 4, 2007

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Via Facsimile: 011 7 495 206 5137/206 6277

Your Excellency,

One year after the assassination of Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the response by your nation’s law enforcement, judicial, and political institutions remains under intense international scrutiny. In Russia and across the world, leaders and citizens expect an investigation that is diligent, transparent, and free of political influence. Thus far, the signals have not been encouraging.

Recent developments have raised many questions. Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced at an August 27 press conference the arrests of 10 suspects allegedly involved in Politkovskaya’s killing. Chaika told reporters that the suspects included current and former officials from Russia’s interior ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as members of a criminal gang headed by an ethnic Chechen. Chaika did not name the suspects or explain their alleged roles. He also said, without citing evidence to back his assertion, that the killing had been masterminded by overseas enemies aiming to destabilize Russia. Two days later, a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court announced the issuance of a warrant for an 11th suspect, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. The court did not provide details of the officer’s alleged involvement.

The names of the suspects appeared in the Russian press as early as August 28; the stories cited unnamed sources. The prosecutor general’s office did not make any official statement describing the individuals’ purported roles in the crime. The unofficial disclosure of the names, Novaya Gazeta has argued, was premature and damaging to the investigation. The paper has said the disclosures signaled to the masterminds and accomplices at large to take flight. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Editor Dmitry Muratov said Chaika’s claim of an overseas mastermind sent a clear message to those in custody: “If your version of events coincides with that of the prosecutor general’s office, a deal with the justice system could be arranged.”
By August 30, Russian news agencies reported the release of two suspects from custody after authorities failed to build cases solid enough to justify detention beyond the 10-day allowable limit. The prosecutor general made no official comment. That same day, a spokesperson for the Moscow District Military Court was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that the arrest of Pavel Ryaguzov, an FSB lieutenant colonel identified in news reports as among the group of suspects, was “in no way” connected to the reporter’s murder. The court’s statement was in stark contrast to the August 27 announcement by FSB’s internal security department that said Ryaguzov was suspected of exactly such involvement. Moscow courts twice ruled that Ryaguzov’s arrest was unlawful before finally approving his detention on September 12. The basis for his detention remains unclear.

At the same time, a troubling reshuffle has taken place in the investigative team. On September 4, the prosecutor general’s office replaced the top case investigator, Pyotr Garibyan, whose work had been praised by Novaya Gazeta and the journalist’s family as professional, dogged, and effective. The prosecutor general replaced Garibyan with an official of higher seniority. A spokeswoman told a news conference that day that the change was intended to help support the investigative team, and that Garibyan and others would remain part of the group. Garibyan was, nonetheless, effectively demoted–a development that Politkovskaya’s family and colleagues greeted with suspicion and disappointment. In an interview with the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, Muratov cautioned: “If the prosecutor general keeps Garibyan in the investigation, the case will hold. If not–farewell case.”

Another arrest in mid-September was clouded in secrecy. Shamil Burayev, former head of the Achkhoi-Martan administrative district of Chechnya, was detained on September 12 and the Basmanny Court of Moscow approved his arrest on September 14. The tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda first disclosed the news on September 15, but no official confirmation came from authorities. On September 21, Burayev’s defense lawyer, Pyotr Kazakov, told news agencies that his client had been charged with complicity in Politkovskaya’s murder. He said Burayev was accused of hiring Ryaguzov to find the reporter’s home address. Kazakov told Interfax that his client is innocent.

Yesterday, in an interview for the Moscow-based daily Izvestiya, the director of the investigation committee at the prosecutor general’s office said he could not “rule out” the possibility that Politkovskaya’s murder was commissioned by parties abroad. However, Aleksandr Bastrykin said, this was one of six theories that investigators are considering and that “we’re investigating all of them thoroughly.”

This raises questions as to why Prosecutor General Chaika chose to highlight the “enemies abroad” theory during his August 27 press conference. Chaika did not mention other possible theories the investigation was pursuing, leading many to believe that his announcement was serving a political purpose. Ten months ago, in speaking about the Politkovskaya assassination, you told reporters: “I cannot imagine that anybody currently in office could come to the idea of organizing such a brutal crime.” You went on to say that the murder was ordered by overseas conspirators “to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiment internationally.”

As an independent, nonpartisan advocacy group that defends journalists’ rights to report the news without fear of reprisal, we urge you to ensure that law enforcement officials pursue a thorough, transparent, and unbiased investigation into Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. A successful prosecution would demonstrate your government’s commitment to reversing Russia’s record of impunity in journalist murders and to protecting Russia’s press corps–a pledge you made during your annual news conference at the Kremlin on February 1.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.


Joel Simon
Executive Director