Three men acquitted in Politkovskaya murder

New York, February 19, 2009–Three defendants in the October 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya walked free out of the Moscow District Military Court today after a jury unanimously acquitted them of helping to organize the crime, according to local news reports. The state prosecution said it will appeal the verdict.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Russian authorities to vigorously seek out the masterminds and triggerman, thoroughly gather all available evidence, bring all perpetrators to trial with solid proof of their involvement in the crime, and try them in a court open to the press and the public.

Those acquitted are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and ethnic Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov. A fourth suspect, Pavel Ryaguzov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel, was tried in a separate case but alongside the three because of his previous association with Khadzhikurbanov. The jury also acquitted Ryaguzov of unrelated charges of abuse and extortion today. All defendants had pleaded not guilty, according to local news reports and CPJ sources close to the trial.


“Though we respect the jury’s decision today to acquit the three defendants based on the presented evidence, we are deeply disappointed at the continued impunity in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call on Russian authorities to work with renewed commitment and vigor to find all responsible for this terrible crime and bring them to justice. We call on investigators to probe every lead, gather solid evidence, and present their cases in a court open to the press and the public.”


At a Moscow press conference held after the verdict was announced, Novaya Gazeta Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov told reporters he and his colleagues were dissatisfied with the verdict, saying that the prosecution failed to bring sufficient evidence before the jury. Sokolov spoke of obstacles before the investigation, created by law enforcement officials he alleged were involved in the murder. “The entire corrupt system of law enforcement structures was engaged to block the work of the investigation,” he said.


Defense lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, who represents the Politkovskaya family, told the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy that she and the family were dissatisfied with the results of the investigation. “With the case presented in court as is, one could only expect what happened,” Moskalenko said, referring to today’s verdict.


The trial was off to a jumpy start in November when Judge Yevgeny Zubov first opened it to the press, then immediately closed it on what he said was a request by the jury, only to re-open it after a juror spoke up and refuted that such request had ever been made. The juror who spoke up was dismissed for talking to the press. The case was tried in a military rather than a civil court because of Ryaguzov, though his role in the case remains unclear.


Out of the 10 suspects the prosecutor-general’s office arrested in August 2007, only three were tried for involvement in the crime. According to lead investigator Petros Garibyan, Khadzhikurbanov was considered the organizer of the crime, while the Makhmudov brothers were said to be his accomplices. In an interview for Novaya Gazeta marking the second anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder, Garibyan said Khadzhikurbanov was implicated in organizing the surveillance of Politkovskaya; one of the Makhudov brothers had followed the journalist and reported her whereabouts back to the second one, who then passed the information to a third brother and suspected triggerman, Rustam. Rustam Makhudov is sought on an international warrant. Investigators have yet to name the suspected mastermind.


Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research, with 49 journalists killed on the job since 1992. Under the present Russian leadership, 20 journalists have died for their work; 16 of those have been murdered in retaliation for their reporting. Only in one of the murders–that of Novaya Gazeta‘s Igor Domnikov–have the killers been convicted; all the masterminds remain at large.