Despite recent convictions, Anna Politkovskaya’s murder remains unsolved

Nearly eight years after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an elevator near her apartment, authorities appear to have made little progress identifying the mastermind behind her murder. Although five men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on June 9 for their roles in the slaying of the Novaya Gazeta journalist, her family and friends say Russian officials are dragging their feet in finding the real culprit.

Mainstream Russian media depicted last month’s convictions as a long-awaited triumph for Russian justice. A jury at Moscow City Court found Chechen brothers Rustam, Dzhabrail, and Ibragim Makhmudov guilty of killing Politkovskaya. Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, the Makhmudov brothers’ uncle, was found guilty of receiving the order to kill the journalist from an unidentified person and organizing the hit. A fifth suspect, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, was also convicted as an accomplice in the murder. The jail terms ranged from 12 years to life.

But Politkovskaya’s allies say their mission continues. “My clients Ilya and Vera Politkovsky are convinced that the men sentenced indeed bear responsibility in the murder,” Anna Stavitskaya, lawyer for Politkovskaya’s adult children, told CPJ. “But they are also convinced that the crime is far from being fully solved.” The investigation into the journalist’s slaying, she said, would be completed only when the person or persons guilty of sending the killers to Politkovskaya’s doorstep are brought to trial.

Frustrated with the course of the investigation, the family has applied to the European Court of Human Rights, which could intervene if it concludes local authorities have not carried out a proper inquiry.

The five convictions renewed attention on a sixth man implicated in the case, former police Lt. Col. Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov. He was sentenced in December 2012 to 11 years in a maximum-security prison after pleading guilty to being an accomplice in the crime. Originally charged with organizing the 2006 killing, Pavlyuchenkov and his lawyers negotiated a plea agreement to the lesser charge; he was tried in a two-day, closed-door proceeding. Politkovskaya’s family and colleagues repeatedly protested the deal, saying it jeopardized the solving of the crime. Under the arrangement he made with investigators, Pavlyuchenkov was obligated to fully confess his role in Politkovskaya’s murder and to name its mastermind, Novaya Gazeta reported. But Pavlyuchenkov has done neither, the journalist’s family and colleagues said.

Now a new development has alarmed the Politkovskaya family. On June 24 the Moscow City Court said it would hear Pavlyuchenkov’s appeal to postpone the start of his prison term because of alleged health problems, including mental health issues. (Pavlyuchenkov has remained in a detention facility pending the resolution of appeals that followed his sentencing.)

Stavitskaya, the Politkovskaya family lawyer, told the Russian service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the family believes there are no grounds for postponing the execution of Pavlyuchenkov’s sentence.

“There are many people who appeal for release or postponement of their terms in connection with their health conditions,” Stavitskaya said, “but their appeals are routinely rejected by the courts, even though oftentimes the crimes they are convicted of are of economic nature. Pavlyuchenkov was convicted of murder. He admitted his guilt and has been under arrest for a long time now. There are no reasons to believe that he cannot continue to be under arrest.”

Anna Politkovskaya’s former colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, who have carried out their own journalistic investigation into the killing, contend that Pavlyuchenkov knows much more about the murder than he has revealed. The investigating authorities, Politkovskaya’s colleagues believe, are aware of this but are not pressing him to speak.

The official investigation, Politkovskaya’s colleagues contend, is lacking in other ways as well. As part of the probe, for example, it became clear that a number of officers with the police’s elite secret department and the Federal Security Service (FSB) played roles in the murder. None of these officers, however, has been brought to justice.

The convictions in Politkovskaya’s case, Novaya Gazeta‘s deputy editor-in-chief, Sergei Sokolov, told CPJ, “are the product of the titanic efforts of Anna’s colleagues, family and friends, who did everything possible to put Pavkyuchenkov on the stand.” However, none of the convictions sheds light on the key questions of the case–who ordered the murder, and who financed and organized it.

Karinna Moskalenko, one of the Politkovskaya family lawyers, is skeptical about the recent verdicts and sentencing. “The life terms given to two secondary culprits in the murder,” Moskalenko told CPJ, “are an attempt to avert the international attention away from the case, and from the fact that Anna Politkovskaya’s killing remains unsolved.”

Russian investigators acknowledge their failure to identify the mastermind and contend their investigation continues. But many are unconvinced. Moskalenko said she did not believe that authorities have made an honest effort to find the real murderers. Instead, she told CPJ, investigators spent an inordinate amount of time pursuing Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev and Boris Berezovsky, the now-deceased Russian oligarch, while “neglecting other, more probable leads, including the one most painful to Russian authorities.” Moskalenko was referring here to the investigation’s lack of focus on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Politkovskaya had accused repeatedly of corruption and human rights abuses.

“And here is the result of the authorities’ actions,” Moskalenko told CPJ. “We still don’t know who the masterminds of the murder are, who organized the crime, who financed it, in what ways did the Russian special services participate in the killing, and why the accomplices employed with the FSB and the police are still evading justice.”