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Moscow Times
June 26, 2009
Politkovskaya Acquittals Overturned
By Alexandra Odynova / The Moscow Times

Defense lawyers took four months to exonerate their clients in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

It took the Supreme Court less than an hour Thursday to throw out the jury's acquittal of the four men and order a retrial.

The Supreme Court's military collegium overturned the jury's unanimous acquittal after prosecutors complained that the trial judge had made numerous procedural violations and improperly showed a bias against the defendants in his closing remarks.

"The principle of contentiousness was violated during the trial," prosecutor Vera Pashkovskaya told the Supreme Court on Thursday.

Defense lawyer Murad Musayev protested that if any violations had been made, they were all "in favor of the prosecutors."

The defense was supported by Politkovskaya's family. "I think that the jury's decision was logical. We ask the court not to cancel the acquittal," said Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer for Politkovskaya's son and daughter.

The son, Ilya Politkovsky, echoed that sentiment in brief remarks to the court.

Reporters and cameramen packed a small courtroom in the Supreme Court to hear Thursday's ruling.

Three of the defendants, Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Federal Security Service officer Sergei Ryaguzov, also sat in the court.

Four months after being freed, they had gained weight and looked tanned, in marked contrast to their pale and exhausted appearance during the trial at the Moscow District Military Court. They smiled and spoke with reporters as the Supreme Court judges considered the appeal in their chambers. The brothers, who were accompanied by their mother, Zalpa Makhmudova, said they had been relaxing and had planted a garden in Chechnya.

The fourth defendant, former police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, is under arrest in a separate case, and he was shown from prison via a video link on two big screens. The clanging and banging of steel prison doors echoed in the courtroom.

The Supreme Court judges spent about 50 minutes in their chambers before emerging to announce the retrial.

Musayev told reporters that he had expected the decision and accused the Kremlin of meddling in the case because it was embarrassed to have no convictions in the high-profile murder.

"This ruling has been agreed on the very top," he said as he left the court. Prosecutors "will correct their mistakes in the new trial, and there will be pressure on the jury."

The brothers and their mother left with tears in their eyes, barely able to speak to the crowd of journalists.

"We have never been on the run, and we are not planning to be. No matter how long these trials might last, we will fight for the truth," Dzhabrail Makhmudov said.

Three of the four defendants are accused of playing minor roles in the murder of Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta and a relentless critic of the country's ruling elite who was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006.

Prosecutors say Dzhabrail Makhmudov drove the gunman to Politkovskaya's apartment building and that the gunman was a third Makhmudov brother who remains at large.

Ibragim Makhmudov was accused of calling to alert his brothers that Politkovskaya was on her way home.

Khadzhikurbanov purportedly recruited the Makhmudov brothers and supplied the pistol used in the shooting.

The fourth defendant, Ryaguzov, was accused of extortion in a case not related to the murder.

Stavitskaya, the Politkovskaya family lawyer, said the retrial might start this fall in the Moscow District Military Court. The first trial lasted from November 2008 to late February.

Politkovskaya's murder sparked an international outcry and rekindled fears about the safety of journalists working in the country.

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika suggested in August 2007 that the mastermind of Politkovskaya's murder was hiding abroad and that the crime was an attempt to discredit the Kremlin.

Politkovskaya's family has accused prosecutors of poorly investigating the murder. Ilya Politkovsky told reporters after the first trial that he believed that the defendants were somehow involved in his mother killing. But he and Politkovskaya's supporters fear that if the trio is convicted, the authorities will stop searching for the real killers and the organizer of the murder.

"We're more interested in the mastermind and the killer," Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "It's completely obvious that today's ruling was based on a political decision, not a procedural one. For the authorities, the most important thing was just to make sure someone went to prison."