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Politkovskaya killers sentenced, but who hired them?

Anna Politkovskaya's Memorial Rally.jpg

It took eight years to convict the suspects in Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, but the person who ordered the journalist’s killing has never been identified. на русском языке

Elena Shmaraeva
18 June 2014

Anna Politkovskaya was killed on 7 October 2006 in the hallway of the apartment building at 8 Lesnaya Street, Moscow, where she lived. The Novaya Gazeta columnist entered the lobby, went up some steps and into the lift. She was shot five times before the doors of the lift could close. The bullets entered her temple, chest, cheek and thigh. The killer then threw down the pistol and left the building.

Murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya was known for investigative reporting on the war in Chechnya.

Murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya was known for investigative reporting on the war in Chechnya. CC Blaues Sofa

Twenty four seconds was the time between Politkovskaya entering the building and her killer leaving. The time that elapsed between the murder and sentence being passed on the people who allegedly organised and carried out the killing was longer – eight years.

Politkovskaya was shot five times before the doors of the lift could close.

According to the verdict, handed down on 9 June, the killing was organised by Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, a Chechen underworld boss with a long criminal record. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, as was his nephew Rustam Makhmudov. Former police officer Sergei Khajikurbanov received 20 years; Makhmudov's brothers, Ibragim and Jabrail, were given 12 and 14 years respectively. Another former police officer, who headed an investigative unit in Moscow, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov had earlier received 11 years for his part in the murder.

Hushed rubbish

The pistol discovered at the scene of the murder was a ‘custom-job,’ converted from an airgun to fire live rounds. The barrel came from another pistol; the bolt and silencer were homemade. In the criminal underworld, this kind of pistol is known as ‘Hushed rubbish,’ explained the prosecutor, Maria Semenenko, demonstrating the weapon to the jury. A man called Vladimir Nabatov sold the gun on to ex-cop Pavlyuchenkov. ‘Witness Nabatov regularly found pistols in his mother-in-law’s bag and sold them’ noted Jabrail Makhmudov’s lawyer, Murad Musayev, alluding to the far from innocent origins of the murder weapon. According to Musayev, the witness worked at a fruit and vegetable warehouse, where there was an illegal sideline converting air guns to fire live rounds. 

It was in this very same warehouse that officer Pavlyuchenkov provided the killer with the murder weapon. The hand-over took place in the presence of one Oleg Golubovich, who had driven Pavlyuchenkov there, as the latter had vision problems. Subsequently, under questioning, Golubovich declared that the individual who received the pistol was Rustam Makhmudov. After recovering the gun at the murder scene, investigators failed to discover any fingerprints on it; DNA and fibres, however, were found.

 Jabrail Makhmudov, Lom-Ali Gaytukayev, Ruslan and Ibragim Makhmudov, Sergei Khajikurbanov

From left to right: Jabrail Makhmudov, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, Ruslan and Ibragim Makhmudov, Sergei Khajikurbanov

After recovering the gun at the murder scene, investigators failed to discover any fingerprints.

According to some sources, there were indications that the DNA belonged to a woman, but there was insufficient material for a comparison with Rustam Makhmudov’s (or other suspects') DNA. It was, however, possible to establish that the fibres came from the upholstery of the car driven by Rustam Makhmudov and his brothers, a green Lada Riva. According to the case files, it was in this car that the killer arrived at Politkovskaya’s building, on 7 October 2006.

The Green Lada

The Green Lada Riva, which was seen on several CCTV recordings on Lesnaya Street, turned out to be registered to Akhmed Isayev, a distant relative of the Makhmudov brothers. Although Rustam Makhmudov was the primary user of the car (which he did not deny), it was subsequently driven by Ibragim and Jabrail.

Experts confirmed that the Makhmudov’s Riva was the same as the vehicle from the crime scene, based on a number of telltale signs – the luggage rack on the roof, the paint, and other details.

According to the prosecution’s version of events, on the day of the murder, Jabrail Makhmudov sat in the driver’s seat with his brother Rustam beside him. The defence counters that Jabrail did indeed drive the car that day, but much later, in the evening, when he collected the car from Sheremetev Street. On the ‘dress rehearsal’ days (the killer had gone to Politkovskaya’s building on 3, 5 and 6 October) Jabrail had not been in the driver’s seat. Musayev, the defence lawyer, had compared the location of the automobile using information from the system, which identifies vehicles by their registration number, and from the accused’s mobile phone; not once did they match up.

The defence did not dispute the allegation that on the day of the murder Rustam Makhmudov was in the car.

The defence did not dispute the allegation that on the day of the murder Rustam Makhmudov was in the car, not far from Politkovskaya’s building. However, they maintained that he was not in the passenger seat but driving. According to the version put forward by his lawyer, Rustam was used without his knowledge by officer Pavlyuchenkov, who had him take ‘his man’ to the pre-arranged location. At the same time, Pavlyuchenkov understood that if the car were to be spotted at the crime scene, it would be easy to find Makhmudov and follow up the ‘Chechen lead,’ which was a red herring according to Musayev.

Telephone conversations

One of the key pieces of evidence of Ibragim and Jabrail Makhmudov’s participation in the murder was the record of their telephone usage. This shows that on 7 October 2006, both brothers were close to the Belorusskaya Metro station, not far from the crime scene. The defence countered that the effective radius of the base stations being used to locate the Makhmudovs is 1500m, which means the brothers could have been close to, but not at, the murder scene.

‘I waited for these lads' selective memory to change – they remember perfectly what they were doing in the morning of the day of the murder and in the evening but they don’t remember the afternoon,’ said Politkovskaya’s son, Ilya, taking the stand. They don’t remember, because they don’t want to lie, otherwise they’d have long ago created a halfway believable version, which the defence could use. In one of his statements, the Makhmudovs' lawyer proposed that on the day in question, the brothers could have been taking groceries to their uncle Lom-Ali Gaitukayev in the Butyrka prison pre-trial detention facility, but the Moscow prison service reported that there were no packages from the Makhmudovs between 1 and 7 November.

A green Lada Riva, similar to the one driven by the alleged killers.

A green Lada Riva, similar to the one driven by the alleged killers. CC Konstantin

While in the Belorusskaya neighbourhood, Ibragim and Jabrail called each other often (the conversations lasted between 6-8 seconds). They also called their uncle Gaitukayev and other numbers. In his statement for the defence, Musayev noted that Jabrail made a few calls to his girlfriend, and once called his mother. He contended that someone about to take part in a murder was hardly going to call his mother from the scene of the crime. 

Someone about to take part in a murder was hardly going to call his mother from the scene of the crime.

The prosecution told the jury about other calls. At 15:52 Ibragim Makhmudov called his brother. According to the investigators, he was near Politkovskaya's apartment block, when he informed Jabrail that Politkovskaya’s car had turned off the Garden Ring. At 16:05, the Novaya Gazeta columnist’s car passed by a CCTV camera at a VTB Bank branch on Lesnaya Street. The distance between these two points is about a kilometre. 

Musayev and Saidakhmed Arsamerzayev (representing Ibrigam Makhmudov) focused the jury’s attention on this point: that would mean Politkovskaya took about 13 minutes to travel a kilometre. If one watches the recording from the VTB camera, there was no traffic on Lesnaya (the murder took place on a Saturday).

At 16:11 Anna Politkovskaya entered the lobby of her building. Her killer left 24 seconds later. 

Rustam Makhmudov’s telephone was turned off the day of the murder, and was only turned on at 16:23, when he called his brother Jabrail from Sheremetev Street (eight minutes from Lesnaya Street, not accounting for traffic, if one believes Google Maps). Jabrail himself was at this time in the neighbourhood of Prospect Mira, as he says himself, at a mosque (10 minutes from Lesnaya, without traffic).

Likely route between the Garden Ring and VTB bank. In light traffic, the journey should take three minutes.

Likely route between the Garden Ring and VTB bank. In light traffic, the journey should take three minutes. via Google

Gaitukayev’s telephone had been tapped since the beginning of 2006.

On 7 October 2006, Gaitukayev, deemed the organiser of the crime, was on remand, but this did not prevent him from calling his nephews several times. According to the investigators, this was how he coordinated the actions of the murderer and his accomplices. However, Gaitukayev’s telephone had been tapped since the beginning of 2006: his conversations were, therefore, recorded, and not a word was uttered about Politkovskaya or the murder, in any of them. Notwithstanding, prosecutors explained in court that the godfather, well versed in this sort of business, used euphemisms, in particular, talking of ‘collecting a debt’ instead of ‘killing.’

Surveillance

Gaitukayev’s lawyer, Tatyana Okushko, offered the jury an alternative version of the events on 7 October. In her opinion, the killer was informed of Politkovskaya’s arrival not by Ibragim Makhmudov but by the people who were tapping her phone. The journalist’s arrival time had been established by a conversation with her son, when she told him that she would be heading back from his grandmother's, popping into a Ramstor supermarket, and coming home.

Musayev contends that Politkovskaya was being shadowed by Pavlyuchenkov’s people, among whom were serving members of law enforcement agencies, the so- called toptuny, specialists in surveillance. Operatives Oleg Shoshin and Dmitry Lebedev did not deny, under questioning, that in 2006 they were following a certain woman, who frequented the places that Politkovskaya did, and travelled in a car that Politkovskaya also travelled in. They did this on Pavlyukevich’s orders, and not as part of their official duties, but for separate pay (about $100-150) for each day of surveillance. According to Shoshin and Lebedev, they had no idea their target had been killed and in general said that they had not asked any superfluous questions. They were not charged with any crime.

Musayev contends that Politkovskaya was being shadowed by Pavlyuchenkov’s people, the so-called toptuny.

According to Musayev, he studied the phone records of Soshin and Pavlyuchenkov as well as those of Oleg Golubovich and Maksim Chervone Ogly (the latter was a property developer, and well acquainted with Pavlyuchenkov). In the 20 minutes before Politkovskaya’s murder, all four men had turned off their telephones and then left Moscow for different destinations. Some time later, Pavlyuchenkov met Golubovich and Chervone Ogly in a café, and gave them $20,000 each – according to the lawyer, for their role in the murder. The official investigation did not charge either Golubovich or Chervone Ogly with Politkovskaya’s murder.

The killer

It was this very same Golubovich who identified Rustam Makhmudov as the killer leaving the lobby of the building on Lesnaya Street. A man with a baseball cap obscuring his face went into the lobby a few minutes before the killing and then left the scene of the crime. This same person had gone into the lobby of Politkovskaya’s building on 3 and 5 October, more or less at the same time as the journalist returned home. On 3 October at 17:00, Anna Politkovskaya and a person in a baseball cap ran into each other outside the building, he was heading into the lobby, she was taking the dog for a walk.

Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov sits in the dock during the first Politkovskaya trial in 2012.

Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov sits in the dock during the first Politkovskaya trial in 2012. (c) RIA Novosti/Anton Denisov

Politkovskaya herself had probably noticed her killer. Her daughter Vera told investigators that, in the days before her death, her mother had told her to be careful, as she had seen several strange people in the lobby. 

Politkovskaya herself had probably noticed her killer.

Prosecutor Semenenko read the jury the testimony of Makhmudov’s second cousin, who recognised his relative on the video from his build and gait. ‘I’ve known him since he was a child, he’s my second cousin, I could always recognise him.' 

Makhmudov’s landlady, however, who owned the flat Makhmudov had rented in 2006, said that she did not recognise him in the recording ‘Its not like him. I can’t say anything really. I’m not an expert.’

Makhmudov’s lawyer, Vladimir Stepanov, drew the jury’s attention to the fact that in 2006 Makhmudov was limping due to a leg injury, and that the killer did not limp. Musayev, comparing photographs of Makhmudov with the real Makhmudov and the killer as captured on film, came to the conclusion that ‘these people are anatomical antitheses of each other.’ The defence also put forward the conclusion of ballistics experts, who stated that the killer was taller than Anna Politkovskaya. Makhmudov is shorter.   

Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov

One more person identified Makhmudov as the murderer – Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov – former head of a police investigative unit. ‘I can’t say 100% that it’s him, but it seems to me 80% likely that the man in the baseball cap is the accused,’ he said in court.

The figure of Pavlyuchenkov and his role in the trial raised questions, it seems, among all the people involved in the case. This was, after all, not the first time the murder had come to trial. The jury at the 2008-2009 trial cleared Ibragim and Jabrail Makhmudov and Sergei Khajikurbanov. Rustam Makhmudov was at that point also on the wanted list; and Pavlyuchenkov himself was a witness. A few years after the not-guilty verdict, Pavlyuchenkov was again arrested, and investigators announced his key role in the organisation of the murder. However, the ex-police officer struck a deal with the investigators: his role, it was said, was important but not decisive. Above all, he failed to reveal who had ordered the killing, though he had promised he would, and so he was sent down for 11 years. 

Above all, he failed to reveal who had ordered the killing, though he had promised he would.

When the retrial began, Pavlyuchenkov was cursed from the dock, despite the objections of the judge. Khajikurbanov, the Makhmudovs and Gaitukayev did not hold anything back. The defendants unanimously described Pavlyuchenkov’s testimony as slander, and even the representatives of Politkovskaya's family believed that he had distorted the facts concerning his role and that of his subordinates in the killing, as well as concealing information about who had ordered the crime.

‘My role was to organise surveillance, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev and Sergei Khajikurbanov were to organise the entire undertaking, and Rustam Makhmudov was the one who carried it out,’ said Pavlyuchenkov in court. He also named the price of the ‘undertaking’ – $150,000. This is the amount Gaitukayev transferred to him, though the lion's share, $137,000, was claimed by Khajikurbanov. 

The Makhmudov brothers' defence reckons that Pavlyuchenkov was the one hired, and organised the murder himself, without Gaitukayev or his nephews. But there is a different story which links him with the rest of the accused: Pavlyuchenkov, who knew Sergei Khajikurbanov well, received from Gaitukayev’s people a sum of about $20,000 or $30,000. This was a pre-arranged amount to be used for the support of Khajikurbanov’s family while he was serving time for abuse of office. Pavlyuchenkov, however, pocketed the money himself, and in the autumn of 2006 Khajikurbanov was trying to get it back.

‘I should have strangled the worm’

Former agent Sergei Khajikurbanov is a frightening and disagreeable figure. He took part in countless dangerous missions to Chechnya, anti-terrorist operations, and hostage situations (including the 2002 storming of the Dubrovka theatre). His career in the security services came to an end when he was caught selling a suspect a kilogramme of heroine. In 2006, he was serving his sentence for this in Ryazan oblast (region) and in the words of Pavlyuchenkov ‘was bought out of prison’ to organise the murder of Politkovskaya.

Khajikurbanov’s career came to an end when he was caught selling a suspect a kilogramme of heroine.

In his testimony in court, Pavlyuchenkov said that Khajikurbanov was the eyes and ears of godfather Lom-Ali Gaitukayev outside prison, and that it was Gaitukayev who was receiving all the information gathered during the surveillance of Politkovskaya. In truth, Khajikurbanov was freed only on 22 September 2006, and the journalist was already being tailed in the summer. Phone records show that Pavlyuchenkov and Khajikurbanov met twice in the run-up to the killing: on 29 September, in Lyubertsy [a Moscow suburb], and a few days later in Moscow. Pavlyuchenkov said that they discussed the assassination; Khajikurbanov that he was trying to collect his debt. ‘Naturally I shouldn’t have been trying to get money out of Pavlyuchenkov, I should have strangled the worm,’ Khajikurbanov said in court.

Khajikurbanov, incidentally, is the only one who has an alibi for the day of the murder.

Prosecutor Maria Semenenko, demonstrating the ex-policeman’s guilt to the jury, exhorted them not to worry that the evidence against him was purely circumstantial. ‘At night you look out of your window and there’s no snow, but when you wake up in the morning, it’s lying on the ground. You didn’t see it snowing but the snowdrifts are circumstantial evidence.’ Yet Khajikurbanov is the only one who has an alibi for the day of the murder. On 7 October he was in Mitino at his mother’s birthday. 

The fraudulent godfather

Gaitukaeyev’s imprisonment at the time of the murder (he was arrested in August 2006) was not regarded as an alibi: he was free to make calls from prison to his nephews, Pavlyuchenkov and many others, so in the investigators’ opinion he was in control of operations. Interestingly, in the first Politkovskaya murder trial, Gaitukayev, like Pavlyuchenkov, was a witness.

In the first Politkovskaya murder trial, Gaitukayev, like Pavlyuchenkov, was a witness.

Gaitukayev is frequently called an ‘underworld boss’, allegedly one of the Chechen ‘Lazanskaya’ criminal group, but Khajikurbanov describes him as a mere fraudster, rather than a hardened criminal. Until the Politkovskaya murder trial, the most serious crime in which ‘the honourable Lom-Ali’ (as Jabrail Makhmudov's lawyer Musayev called him) had been involved, was the 1993 ‘Chechen aviso’ scam – where the Russian Central Bank was conned with the help of fake financial documents.

It was Pavlyuchenkov who explained the role of Gaitukayev in the Politkovskaya murder. Apparently they met in July 2006 in a cafe in the Moscow district of Taganka; Gaitukayev gave him a piece of paper with the address of the ‘target’ and the registration number of the car she drove. He told him to organise a tail and handed over a bag with the above mentioned $150,000. Maksim Chervone Ogly was present at the meeting. He told investigators that he saw Pavlyuchenkov give the older Makhmudov a pistol and money. But this was during the course of the investigation. When he got to court, Chervone Ogly denied it all. ‘You can throw those statements in the bin – I've never heard any of it before.’

'You can throw those statements in the bin – I've never heard any of it before.’

Gaitukayev’s defence has pointed out other inconsistencies: Pavlyuchenkov claims Gaitukayev arrived in Taganka in a Volga, but this car had been sold several months previously. Gaitukayev had paid a large amount of money to have Politkovskaya followed, but for some unknown reason allowed himself to be picked up on camera outside the journalist's home, and near the Novaya Gazeta offices on Potapovsky Lane. Recordings of his phone calls provide no evidence of him 'receiving the contract' for the murder (indeed, there has never been any confirmation that this was actually done by phone).

The man behind it all

But, most importantly, Gaitukayev breaks the link in the chain connecting the actual murderer with the organiser and, finally, the person who gave the initial order or 'contract.' So the key question of motive remains unsolved.

Protest for justice for Politkovskaya in 2009. The protesters hold signs with Politkovskaya's picture on them.

Protest for justice for Politkovskaya in 2009. Five years later, her family are still not convinced justice has been done.

Under interrogation, Pavlyuchenkov supposedly implicated disgraced oligarch Boris Berezovsky, then living in London. However, the official indictment describes the client who ordered the killing as an ‘unidentified person, displeased with Politkovskaya’s critical publications.’ Novaya Gazeta never viewed Berezovsky as a serious contender for this role

The verdicts

Although not one of the five people on trial admitted guilt in the murder, each of them was to hear the same verdict: ‘guilty.’ In the retrial there were two juries. The first was dismissed in November 2011, when three jurors (including the foreman) suddenly recused themselves. Choosing new jurors was difficult: some candidates were frightened by the sheer weight of the case, others declared prejudice towards ‘people of Caucasian nationality.’ Not long before the announcement of the verdict, it emerged that juror number 10 had spoken with jurors who had previously been dismissed from the case, and then tried to get the remaining members of the jury to dissolve themselves. The troublemaker was removed from the trial and replaced with a reserve juror, and thus the verdict was finally handed down.

‘Until the person who ordered the killing is identified, the crime cannot be said to have been solved.’

Representatives of the victim – the daughter and son of Anna Politkovskaya, and the editors of Novaya Gazeta – consider those who ended up in the dock complicit in the murder, but are not satisfied with the results of the investigation. ‘Until the person who ordered the killing is identified, the crime cannot be said to have been solved. Moreover, there are clearly people who have managed to avoid being brought to justice for reasons unknown to us,' said the lawyer Anna Stavitskaya.

The lawyer Murad Musayev, who for eight of his ten years practicing law had defended Jabrail Makhmudov, did not even bother to show up for the reading of the sentence.

Image two: (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksei Fillipov

Image six: (c) Demotix/Anton Belitskiy

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