Two years after Politkovskaya’s murder, three suspects will go to trial

New York, October 6, 2008–Three men will soon go to trial in the October 2006 assassination of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, according to local news reports. Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office approved the indictments on Wednesday, and sent the case to court on Thursday.

The suspects are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov. This development comes on the second anniversary of Politkovskaya’s brutal murder, in which she was shot four times in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow. She was 48.

A fourth suspect, Pavel Ryaguzov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel, has been charged with abuse of office and extortion. He is not accused of direct involvement in Politkovskaya’s murder, but will be tried along with the other three suspects because of his previous association with Khadzhikurbanov, Petros Garibyan, the chief investigator in charge of the Politkovskaya case, said in an extensive interview for Novaya Gazeta published today.

Because the case contains classified materials and an FSB officer is involved in the case, it will be heard by a military rather than a civil court, Garibyan told Novaya Gazeta. Politkovskaya’s son, Ilya, told journalists at a press conference at the Paris headquarters of Reporters Without Borders on Friday that he is concerned that the trial “could be closed” to the public and the press. Garibyan said a preliminary hearing should be scheduled in the next 10 days. He confirmed that the case was sent to Moscow District Military Court on Thursday.

“The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities at Moscow District Military Court to open the trial in the murder of our colleague Anna Politkovskaya to the press and the public; then and only then will a fair trial be possible,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We commend investigator Petros Garibyan and his colleagues on this significant step forward, and call on them to build on their progress by apprehending and prosecuting all perpetrators involved in this hideous crime. The investigation can in no way be considered complete with the triggerman and the masterminds at large.”

The alleged triggerman is a third Makhmudov brother named Rustam. He has been charged with Politkovskaya’s murder, but is at-large and sought on an international warrant.

The mastermind of the crime has not been officially named, though several Russian reports, including one by independent news agency Kavkazky Uzel, said the investigation focuses on Chechen rebel leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev. Nukhayev is also the officially named mastermind in the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov. Responding to an earlier query, Garibyan told CPJ in a letter received September 28 that authorities are not considering a connection between the Politkovskaya and Klebnikov cases. But in his Novaya Gazeta interview, Garibyan said that he could “neither confirm nor deny” such a connection.

“This new development renews our hope that there could one day be a conviction in the murder of our colleague Paul Klebnikov,” said Simon. “We remember the closed, secretive trial in Klebnikov’s case–it was marred by numerous procedural violations that led to a faulty ruling. Now the case is at a standstill.”

In an October 3 interview with the independent Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov said Politkovskaya’s colleagues were dissatisfied that details leaked from the investigation have helped suspects avoid prosecution. Out of the initial 10 suspects in the Politkovskaya murder case whose arrest Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced in August 2007, only four remain in custody today.

Prosecutors had not detailed Khadzhikurbanov’s alleged involvement until now, but Garibyan told Novaya Gazeta that Khadzhikurbanov is considered the organizer of the crime, while the ethnic Chechen Makhmudov brothers are said to be his accomplices. Garibyan said one of the brothers had followed Politkovskaya and reported back to the second one, who then passed the information to the third brother and suspected triggerman, Rustam.

Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research. With the recent murders of opposition editor Magomed Yevloyev in Ingushetia and television anchor Telman Alishayev in Dagestan, the toll has gone up to 16 journalist murders in since 2000 alone. Only in one of the 16 killings–that of Novaya Gazeta‘s Igor Domnikov–have the killers been convicted; the masterminds remain at large.

When Politkovskaya was killed on October 7, 2006, she became the 13th journalist to be slain, contract style, under then President Vladimir Putin’s tenure. While covering Chechnya for seven years for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya endured threats, imprisonment, forced exile, and poisoning to chronicle the plight of civilians at the hands of FSB agents, federal troops, rebel forces, and the Kremlin-backed Chechen militia. In her reporting, Politkovskaya exposed human rights abuses, disappearances, corruption, torture, and murder. She sharply criticized the Kremlin-appointed Chechen then-prime minister, and now president, Ramzan Kadyrov, in her writing as well as in numerous interviews with international media.