Assassins targeted the internationally known journalists Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya two years apart in Moscow. Despite promises, arrests, and trials, no one has been brought to justice.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
Much seemed to go right in the investigations into the murders of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov and Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Investigators recognized the journalists had been killed in retaliation for their work. Prosecutors charged suspects and brought cases to trial before juries.
Few other investigations into journalist murders have reached this level of progress in Russia. Yet neither case ended in convictions, an outcome that laid bare systemic weaknesses in the judicial system: a lack of transparency, an absence of accountability, a susceptibility to external influences, and an inability to pursue cases to their conclusion.
In the Klebnikov case, which was tried behind closed doors, a series of questionable judicial decisions tainted the conduct of the proceedings. Most notably, the presiding judge left jurors vulnerable to intimidation and appeared to intervene in the verdicts. After two defendants were acquitted in the 2004 killing, a prosecutor publicly decried “serious violations” in court procedures. But though the government appealed and won the right to retry the case, one defendant disappeared and the case was not brought back to court. The purported mastermind was never apprehended.
Much of the Politkovskaya trial was open to the public, despite the presiding judge’s attempts to close the proceedings. In this case, the openness of the proceedings revealed major weaknesses in the state’s case. Three defendants—the alleged middleman, getaway driver, and lookout—were acquitted in the 2006 murder, although the Supreme Court later ordered a retrial. The man identified by the government as the gunman disappeared before he could be charged. No mastermind has been identified. According to Novaya Gazeta, the independent Moscow newspaper, powerful interests prevented the investigation from digging deep enough or reaching high enough to learn the truth about Politkovskaya’s murder.
Paul Klebnikov, 41, the founding editor of Forbes Russia, was working late on July 9, 2004. As he left his Moscow office around 10 p.m., at least one gunman fired nine times from a passing car. The wounded Klebnikov described an assailant with “black hair, black clothes” but did not know the person’s identity or who might have been behind the shooting, said Russian Newsweek journalist Aleksandr Gordeyev, who talked with the journalist while an ambulance was on its way.
Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, had launched the magazine’s Russian edition just months before, in April 2004, believing that reforms were propelling the country toward greater transparency in business and politics. In his first commentary for the magazine, he wrote that Russian business had arrived at a “new, more civilized stage of development,” and he cited the launch of his magazine as evidence. A veteran investigative journalist, Klebnikov immediately put Russia’s business elite in the limelight by publishing a list of the country’s wealthiest people, “The Golden Hundred.” The list caused a stir among the country’s entrenched oligarchs, most of whom preferred to keep descriptions of their assets off the pages of a high-profile magazine.
Klebnikov was no stranger to risky topics. Among the sensitive subjects he explored were the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev and the “gangster capitalism” of the 1990s. While his investigations often focused on the connections between Russian business, politics, law enforcement, and organized crime, he also probed armed conflict and political strife in Chechnya. His 2003 Russian-language book, Conversation With a Barbarian, drew on interviews with the Chechen separatist leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev.
Russian authorities later declared that Nukhayev, angered by the book’s anti-separatist approach, had ordered Klebnikov’s killing. Investigators did not disclose the basis for that conclusion, and Nukhayev’s whereabouts were never made clear.
The case appeared to get high-priority treatment as then-Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov ordered a special crimes unit to investigate. In November 2004, the news agency Interfax reported that police had arrested Musa Vakhayev, a 40-year-old ethnic Chechen, in connection with the murder; Vakhayev was later charged with driving the car from which Klebnikov was shot. In February 2005, Belarusian authorities extradited to Russia a 30-year-old ethnic Chechen named Kazbek Dukuzov, who was charged as the gunman.
By November 2005, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that it had completed its investigation of the two suspects and was ready to proceed against them. The Moscow City Court declared that Dukuzov and Vakhayev would be tried in secret because unspecified classified information would be disclosed. After the trial began in early 2006, Moscow City Court Judge Vladimir Usov imposed a gag order on all trial participants at the request of the prosecution. Court officials said the gag order would help guarantee the safety of jurors and other trial participants. But other, obvious steps to protect jurors were not taken, according to CPJ sources.
Several sources told CPJ that the jury was left open to intimidation during the trial. The defendants and their representatives made a number of threatening statements in the presence of jurors, who were not sequestered and could be readily approached entering or exiting the courtroom, these sources said. The business daily Kommersant later reported in November 2006 that a female juror had complained that Dukuzov told her she would be shot if she did not vote for acquittal.
Richard Behar, an investigative reporter who heads Project Klebnikov, an alliance of journalists working to help solve the killing, said investigators had compiled considerable evidence against Dukuzov and Vakhayev. In a June 2006 Forbes article, Behar wrote that investigators had gathered cell phone records indicating the defendants had watched Klebnikov for two weeks before the murder. Through a witness, they had identified the vehicle from which the fatal shots were fired and then found Vakhayev’s fingerprints in the car. Prosecutors also elicited testimony from an acquaintance of the defendants who recalled their talking about being paid well for a “big job.”
As the jury returned its verdict in May 2006, more questions arose about the conduct of the trial. Usov left the courtroom three times after receiving—but before announcing—the jury’s decision. In each instance, he summoned jurors to follow him outside the courtroom, beyond even the limited scrutiny of the closed-door proceedings. Jurors had been instructed to answer a series of questions to reach their verdict—and those answers weren’t matching up, Kommersant reported on May 6, 2006. “Yesterday, Judge Vladimir Usov was unable to disclose the verdict for a long time,” the paper reported. “Three times he returned it to the jury for ‘stylistic refinement.’ Vakhayev’s lawyer, Ruslan Khasanov, explained that the formulations contained inaccuracies and Judge Usov returned the answers with the instruction: “Think again!”
The verdict: acquittals for both defendants. Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin said publicly that “serious violations” of court procedures had led to the verdicts. The prosecution, joined by the Klebnikov family, appealed to Russia’s Supreme Court, which overturned the acquittals in November 2006 and ordered a new trial before a new judge.
But Dukuzov, free after his acquittal, had vanished by then. Moscow City Court officials postponed the retrial and moved the case off the docket entirely in 2007, sending it back to the Prosecutor General’s Office for further investigation. The court never disclosed who had made this pivotal decision, which effectively sent the case back to step one.
The prosecution appealed again, but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court—a ruling that has perplexed the Klebnikov family and others. “We’ve been told by our attorney that the transfer of the case is not according to law,” the journalist’s brother, Peter Klebnikov, said. The Supreme Court has not disclosed its reasoning.
The case is now with the federal Investigative Committee at the Prosecutor General’s Office, a semiautonomous agency created in 2007 that is responsible for conducting criminal probes. Petros Garibyan, a senior investigator, said in written comments to CPJ that authorities had obtained an international arrest warrant for Dukuzov. Vakhayev was living openly in Russia, the investigator said. In July, following a summit between President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, the government pledged to renew its efforts in the case. “We will achieve our goal by finding those responsible for this crime,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said.
Anna Politkovskaya, 48, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building after returning from a grocery store on the afternoon of October 7, 2006. She was emerging from an elevator in the lobby to retrieve the remaining bags of groceries from her car when a gunman surprised her, firing four times from a 9mm Izh pistol fitted with a silencer. He tossed the gun next to her body and strode off. Security cameras in the building and in the neighborhood captured images of a slender man of average height, clad in dark clothing, his face obscured by a baseball cap.
News of the shooting spread around the world within hours, although international coverage was higher profile than at home. Politkovskaya had received acclaim abroad, but in Russia she was best known in small, liberal circles. A sharp critic of the war in Chechnya—a conflict she had covered for seven years at Novaya Gazeta—Politkovskaya had written voluminously about torture, official corruption, and human rights crimes in the North Caucasus. In those seven years, she had repeatedly drawn the wrath of Russian authorities. She was threatened, jailed, forced into exile, and poisoned during her career, CPJ research shows. Her last story, published after her death, detailed the alleged torture of Chechen civilians by military units loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed local leader. Despite her significant work, Politkovskaya was never interviewed on state-controlled national television, the medium by which most Russians get their news.
President Vladimir Putin’s first remarks on the killing—three days after it occurred, in response to a reporter’s question—seemed insensitive. “I must say that her political influence (I think experts would agree with me) was insignificant inside the country and, chances are, she was more notable in human rights circles and in mass media circles in the West,” the president said in an interview with the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Whether Putin was technically correct in his assessment or not—after all, his government had airbrushed the journalist from the public space—what truly mattered was what he said next. The country’s commander-in-chief effectively told Russian prosecutors to rule out politicians and other government officials as suspects. “For current authorities in general and Chechen authorities in particular, Politkovskaya’s murder did more damage than her articles,” Putin said. “I cannot imagine that anybody currently in office could come to the idea of organizing such a brutal crime.” Speaking separately at a public event in Dresden, he said the murder had been orchestrated “to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiment internationally.”
Nearly a year later, on August 27, 2007, Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika told a Moscow news conference that 10 suspects were in custody in connection with the crime. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for an 11th person two days later. Chaika said the suspects included current and former police and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, along with members of a Chechen-led criminal gang that “specializes in contract killings.” Closely echoing Putin’s remarks from a year earlier, Chaika suggested the murder plot had been hatched overseas “to destabilize the situation in Russia, discredit the authorities, and change the constitutional system,” according to the news agency ITAR-TASS. He did not identify the masterminds or elaborate on the “overseas” theory.
The 11 people detained were not officially identified, but their names were leaked to the press within days. Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ the leaks were damaging to the case because they prompted key conspirators to go into hiding. “According to our sources,” Novaya Gazeta Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov wrote in a September 12, 2007, editorial, “these leaks constituted a purposeful policy, whose goal is the destruction of the case.”
By the time the Politkovskaya trial started in mid-November 2008 in the Moscow Military District Court, only four of the original 11 suspects remained in custody. Three—Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and ethnic Chechen brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov—were charged in the killing. A fourth suspect, Pavel Ryaguzov, an FSB lieutenant colonel, was charged with extortion and assault in a case unrelated to the killing. Although Ryaguzov was not charged in connection with the Politkovskaya slaying, his trial was merged with that of the other three defendants because of an alleged association with Khadzhikurbanov.
Khadzhikurbanov was accused of procuring the murder weapon and recruiting Politkovskaya’s killers. Dzhabrail, the younger Makhmudov brother, was charged with driving the killer to Politkovskaya’s apartment that October afternoon. Older brother Ibragim was accused of watching Politovskaya and informing accomplices of her return home. A third Makhmudov brother—Rustam—was charged in absentia (but not tried) as the gunman. Investigators said the car Dzhabrail drove—a green Lada—was registered in Rustam’s name.
Rustam Makhmudov, according to news reports, fled Russia in the days after the suspects’ names were first leaked to the press. Novaya Gazeta and others reported that Rustam had bribed an immigration official to issue him a fraudulent passport that allowed him to flee.
The absence of both the alleged killer and mastermind was a burden for the prosecution as the trial began in November 2008. The proceedings got off to a rough start. Judge Yevgeny Zubov first opened the trial to the press, then closed it at the supposed request of the jury, only to reopen it after a juror said publicly that no such request had been made. The juror was dismissed for talking to the press.
It soon became clear that the prosecution’s case against the three defendants was tenuous. Lead defense lawyer Murad Musayev, a charismatic ethnic Chechen, raised numerous doubts among jurors and courtroom observers. As The New Yorker’s Keith Gessen reported, the defense lawyer argued that the Lada traced to Rustam Makhmudov was one of seven on the block that afternoon. Musayev also undermined the prosecution’s description of Politkovskaya’s route home from the grocery store, which would have taken her past Ibragim Makhmudov’s purported lookout location. The defense lawyer noted that Politkovskaya could easily have taken an alternative route.
But the prosecution took its greatest battering when it came to the Makhmudovs’ cell phone records, a central part of the case against the brothers. The records appeared to show that Dzhabrail and Ibragim had phoned each other several times before and after 4 p.m.—the time of the killing. But the prosecution, astonishingly, had introduced as evidence not the original phone records but a spreadsheet re-creation of the records that investigators had compiled. As Gessen reported, the spreadsheet identified the Interior Ministry rather than the phone company as the author, and it contained a discrepancy in the number of calls made between the brothers. The prosecution, Gessen said, explained that the spreadsheet was simply a convenient way for investigators to share the records electronically. A print-out of the phone company’s records was finally produced, but the prosecution’s credibility had already been damaged. The defense pointed out the obvious: The records were susceptible to doctoring.
The security camera recordings, among the hardest pieces of evidence for the prosecution, proved vulnerable to attack as well. The defense pointed out discrepancies in the time stamps on the recordings made at the grocery store where Politkovskaya shopped, at her apartment building, and at a neighboring bank that showed the street outside her home. More mystifying was the presence on the grocery store tapes of a man and a woman who clearly seemed to be following Politkovskaya. Yet the prosecution offered no explanation. Their faces, unlike that of the suspected killer, were visible on the recordings. Who were these people? Had they been questioned?
Novaya Gazeta’s Sokolov said investigators initially followed up on that lead, only to stop abruptly, Gessen reported. The implication, Sokolov said, was that those two people were untouchable.
The defense used the prosecution’s gaps and sloppiness to gain momentum. After Musayev’s rebuttal of the accusations against the Chechen brothers, Khadzhikurbanov’s lawyer did not have to work hard on behalf of his client. He said Khadzhikurbanov could not have organized the crime because he had been released from prison only a month before the killing.
On February 19, the jury took less than two hours to acquit all three defendants in Politkovskaya’s murder, and Ryaguzov in the unrelated case. At a news conference immediately afterward, Novaya Gazeta’s Sokolov called the verdict “a condemnation of the entire judicial system, which works ineffectively from beginning to end.” He spoke of corruption in law enforcement, which, he said, had prevented investigators from doing a better job.
Novaya Gazeta, along with the Politkovskaya family and their lawyers, Karinna Moskalenko and Anna Stavitskaya, though disheartened by the failure to identify and punish the killers, accepted the jury verdict and praised the openness of the trial and what Moskalenko called “a truly competitive process.”
It was the transparency that revealed gaps in the prosecution’s case and exposed the necessity for a new, effective investigation. “We demand, we need the real killers—the real killers,” Moskalenko told reporters after the verdict. “And we will achieve this.”
In June, the Supreme Court overturned the acquittals and ordered a retrial of the three defendants. The court found procedural violations in the initial trial, including improper admission of statements that compromised the jury’s impartiality. Politkovskaya’s colleagues and supporters remained skeptical. The prosecution’s case against the three was weak to begin with, they said, and a retrial would not address the main issue—prosecuting those most culpable. “The most important thing for us,” Sokolov said, “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.”