Supreme Court orders retrial in Politkovskaya murder

New York, June 25, 2009–Russia’s Supreme Court today overturned the acquittals of three men accused of involvement in the October 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya. A spokesman for the court said there were procedural violations during the trial, according to press reports.

In February, a 12-member jury in Moscow acquitted Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov after a three-month trial. Among other violations, the high court found that the trial judge improperly admitted statements that compromised the jury’s impartiality.

Numerous trial observers, including Politkovskaya’s supporters, said the prosecution’s case was so deeply flawed that the acquittals were understandable. A retrial may or may not address such problems. They have also pointed out, in the past and again today, that the three defendants were accused of secondary roles in the crime. The accused gunman has been identified but has fled; the masterminds have not been identified.

“Prosecutors must present strong, solid evidence in a re-trial to convince jurors, and the public, of the three defendants’ involvement in this grave crime,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said today. “But vitally important is that authorities focus their energy and expertise on apprehending and prosecuting the gunman and masterminds in Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination.”

In an interview with CPJ, Novaya Gazeta Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov said: “The most important thing for us is that we not only have some secondary characters answer for their actions, but have the real culprits–the killer and the mastermind of the crime–called to the stand.”

Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer representing the Politkovskaya family, told CPJ that the family did not appeal the verdicts because the prosecution’s case was untenable. Russian law allows a victim’s family to appoint a legal representative who can take an official role in criminal proceedings.

“We are not saying that the three defendants had no culpability in Anna’s killing; we had the impression that they were hiding something,” Moskalenko said. “But we do not know the degree of their involvement, if any, and we do respect the presumption of innocence. The prosecution failed at the job of proving the defendants guilty, and neither the court nor the jury was responsible for that.”

In an interview today with the independent Ekho Moskvy radio, Dzhabrail Makhmudov said that he and his brother, Ibragim, were ready to stand trial again. “We have never run in our lives and we are not going to run from this now,” he said. Authorities have identified a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, as the gunman. Novaya Gazeta and others have reported that Rustam Makhmudov fled Russia on a fraudulent passport.

Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research, with 50 journalists killed on the job since 1992. Under the present Russian leadership, 17 journalists were killed in retaliation for their reporting. In only one of the murders–that of Novaya Gazeta‘s Igor Domnikov–have the killers been convicted; all of the masterminds remain at large.