Court closes Politkovskaya murder trial to public

New York, November 19, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disappointed at today’s decision by the Moscow District Military Court to close the jury trial of three suspects in the October 2006 assassination of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya to the public, only two days after it declared it would be open.

Presiding Judge Yevgeny Zubov announced in court today that the 20 jurors selected on Tuesday had made an appeal to close the proceedings, according to local news reports. The lawyers for both Politkovskaya’s family and the three defendants protested the trial’s closure, as did Novaya Gazeta, the slain journalist’s newspaper.

“We deplore the Moscow District Military Court‘s decision to put the seal of secrecy on this high-profile trial,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Closing the proceedings will prevent the press from exercising one of its most important functions–alerting the public to possible violations. We call on court officials to immediately reverse this decision and allow journalists back into the courtroom.”

Reading from a note passed to him by the jurors selected for Politkovskaya’s trial, Presiding Judge Yevgeny Zubov announced that the jurors would not enter the courtroom before all print and broadcast journalists present have exited, according to local news reports. Despite protests from both defense lawyer Murad Musayev and Politkovskaya’s family lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, Zubov said the decision was final and ordered all journalists–around 30–to leave the room.

“There is no legal basis for making the proceedings closed,” said Musayev. “If there was pressure on the jurors, if they were being threatened, then things would be different. But these are cameras, not weapons.”

During the preliminary hearing on Monday, Judge Zubov told journalists that the court would close the trial if jurors requested it because they felt threatened, independent news Web site Gazeta reported. “And now, as if by magic, such an appeal was allegedly made,” Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta told CPJ.

“This is a shameful, backstage, non-transparent decision, which will prevent the public from getting acquainted with the case,” Novaya Gazeta‘s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, told the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. “This is terrible and it won’t do. We are left with no choice but to uncover the case on the pages of our newspaper.”

The three defendants currently being tried in Politkovskaya’s murder are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov. The official investigation has named Khadzhikurbanov as the organizer of the crime and the two Makhmudov brothers his accomplices. 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 others because of his previous association with Khadzhikurbanov, according to Novaya Gazeta.

Neither the alleged triggerman–a third Makhmudov brother named Rustam–nor the masterminds of Politkovskaya’s assassination are in custody. Rustam Makhmudov is wanted on an international warrant. Several Russian reports, including one by independent news agency Kavkazsky Uzel, said earlier this year that the investigation is focusing on Chechen rebel leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev as the mastermind. Nukhayev is also the officially named mastermind in the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov. Responding to an earlier query, Petros Garibyan, the chief investigator in charge of the Politkovskaya case, told CPJ in a letter received on September 28 that authorities are not considering a connection between the Politkovskaya and Klebnikov cases. But in an October 6 interview for Novaya Gazeta, Garibyan said that he could “neither confirm nor deny” such a connection.

Because the case contains classified materials and an FSB officer is involved in the case, the prosecutor-general’s office sent it to a military rather than a civil court in October. Back then, Politkovskaya’s family and their lawyers expressed concern that the trial may be closed; state prosecutors appealed to close the proceedings on Monday. Judge Zubov rejected the prosecution’s demand at the time.

“The closure of Politkovskaya’s murder trial today is especially alarming considering recent history–the trial in the murder of Paul Klebnikov,” said Ognianova. “The opaque jury trial of two suspects in the killing of our colleague was marred by procedural violations that led to a flawed ruling. Now the case is in limbo.”

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. Now the number of journalists murdered for their work stands at 16. While covering Chechnya for seven years for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya endured threats, imprisonment, forced exile, and poisoning. 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.