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Moscow Times
February 20, 2009
Politkovskaya Suspects Walk Free

A jury on Thursday acquitted three men charged in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, winning praise from Politkovskaya's family for not accepting what they called a poorly investigated case.

The 12-member jury unanimously cleared Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov of involvement in the murder of Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in the elevator of her central Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006.

The crowded hall of the Moscow Military District Court burst into applause after the verdict was announced Thursday afternoon. It took the jury slightly more than two hours to debate the 20 questions compiled for them by the judge and to acquit the suspects.

As the defendants were released from custody, they walked over to Politkovskaya's son, Ilya, who attended the session, and shook his hand. Ilya Politkovsky, who has been sharply critical of investigators' work in the case, congratulated them.

Later, however, he told reporters that he believed that the suspects were guilty.

"I believe these men are involved in the murder of my mother," he said.

Sergei Sokolov, the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya worked, made the same claim at the news conference. His newspaper is conducting an independent investigation into the murder.

"And I'm really anxious about the security of the witnesses who participated in the case," Sokolov said.

Dzhabrail Makhmudov, broadly smiling in the defendants' cage after the jury delivered the acquittal, said God had helped clear his name and pledged to help find the true killers.

The Prosecutor General's Office will appeal, Prosecutor Yulia Safina said in the courtroom. By law, prosecutors have 10 days to file an appeal.

A lawyer for the Politkovskaya family, Karina Moskalenko, welcomed the jury's verdict. "We have always demanded that investigators do a quality job," she said.

She said, however, that she was concerned that the verdict might push authorities to further crack down on jury trials.

Makhmudovs' defense lawyer Murad Musayev said he was getting ready for a new trial. "There is a high probability that it [the verdict] will be cancelled by the court of appeal," he said.

"We hope this doesn't happen, but we are preparing for a second trial."

The jury also cleared a former Federal Security Service officer, Sergei Ryaguzov, who was tried with the other suspects on abuse of power charges in a case not related to the Politkovskaya killing.

Thursday's acquittal marks the end of an often-chaotic, three-month trial in which charges were not brought against the gunman or the person or persons who masterminded Politkovskaya's slaying.

Khadzhikurbanov was accused of organizing the killing and securing the gun used in the murder, while Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov were charged as accomplices. A third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, is suspected of actually pulling the trigger but has not been apprehended. An international warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Prosecutors told the court in closed hearings this week that Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, an uncle to the Makhmudov brothers who acted as a witness at the trial, was initially asked to organize Politkovskaya's murder, defense lawyers said.

Prosecutors said Gaitukayev who is serving a 12-year prison sentence after being convicted in the attempted killing of a Ukrainian businessman passed the job to Khadzhikurbanov because he could not arrange it himself from prison, the lawyers said.

The ultimate mastermind behind the murder, however, remains unclear. Prosecutors said Gaitukayev was acting on behalf of someone else in organizing Politkovskaya's killing but provided no names.

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika suggested in August 2007 that the person who masterminded the Politkovskaya murder was hiding abroad and that the crime was an attempt to discredit the Kremlin.

In a newspaper interview last April, Dmitry Dovgy, a former senior Investigative Committee official currently under investigation for purported corruption, accused self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky of ordering Politkovskaya's killing.

Khadzhikurbanov testified in court this month that investigators had offered him a reduced prison sentence if he would implicate Berezovsky in the crime.

Thursday's acquittal highlights the difficulties prosecutors have faced in persuading jurors in high-profile criminal trials. In May 2006, a jury acquitted two Chechen men, Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev, in the 2004 murder of U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov in Moscow.

Prosecutors said the initial trial had been flawed and appealed for a retrial. But the retrial process was suspended in March 2007 after Dukuzov disappeared.

In June, the Moscow Regional Court cleared retired Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov and two former soldiers of organizing a 2005 attack on Anatoly Chubais, the widely reviled architect of the country's 1990s privatization program.

In August, the Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and sent the case back to court.

Many defense lawyers say prosecutors consistently produce shoddily crafted cases against suspects, thus leading to jury acquittals. According to 2007 data from the Supreme Court, 0.7 percent of those tried by judges were acquitted, while the acquittal rate in jury trials was 17.2 percent.

Politkovskaya's family and colleagues repeatedly questioned the soundness of the case prosecutors built against Khadzhikurbanov and the Makhmudov brothers over the course of the investigation and trial.

Human rights activists were also critical about the quality of the investigation.

"We are talking now about the absolute absence of justice in the case that shocked the world," said Tatyana Lokshina, the deputy head of the Moscow branch of the Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based watchdog.

Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta, was a relentless critic of the country's ruling elite, and her slaying rekindled fears about the safety of journalists working in the country.

The deputy head of the State Duma's Security Committee, Gennady Gudkov, said Thursday that Politkovskaya's murder investigation should be continued with the best investigators.

"I didn't feel firmly convinced that investigators succeeded in solving the case because there are too many questions about the quality of the evidence," he said, Interfax reported.

Defense lawyers in the Politkovskaya case said they would seek compensation for their clients.