Politkovskaya’s murder: solved or fudged?

Maryana Torocheshnikova
19 February 2009

Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya was killed on October 7, 2006, in the entrance to the building where she lived. Law enforcement officials said straight away that they thought the murder was connected to her professional activity. 

For quite a long time nothing was known about the investigation. This was in large part thanks to the efforts of Novaya Gazeta journalists, who undertook their own investigation, worked closely with the prosecutor's office, helped gather evidence for the criminal case and did their utmost to ensure that information did not leak out.

Finally, at a press conference in August 2007, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika announced that the murder case had been solved and 10 people had been arrested. "These are the direct organisers, accessories, and those who carried out the crime", Chaika said, and declared that the murder had been planned "in the most thorough fashion.

"There were two tracking groups, one following Politkovskaya's movements, the other keeping watch on the first group, and vice versa. At the head of them all was someone from Chechnya, leader of a Moscow criminal group involved in illegal business activities and specialising in hired killers." Chaika said on that occasion that "former and current employees of the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service took part in tracking and providing information on Politkovskaya".

A full list of those arrested appeared in one of the tabloid newspapers the next day. Soon, criminal prosecution of most of the suspects was halted. In the end, of the ten people whose arrest was announced 18 months ago by the Prosecutor General, only three were brought to trial: the brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former captain in the Interior Ministry's department for fighting organised crime. Another suspect, Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant-colonel Pavel Ryaguzov was charged with crimes relating to another incident, joined to the Politkovskaya case. He and Khadzhikurbanov were both charged with abuse of power and blackmail. It is because of Ryaguzov and his FSB position that the Politkovskaya trial is taking place in the Moscow District Military Court.      

The ‘secrets' ploy

Some of the volumes of evidence in the Politkovskaya case are marked ‘secret' - a common trick used by investigators. It is enough to add a couple of documents from secret services' internal correspondence or cite references to an agent. Formally speaking, all such information is protected by the law on state secrets, though in reality there is often nothing secret at all in the documents. The investigator can ask the FSB, for example, "did secret services employees track Anna Politkovskaya's movements?" Of course the FSB will deny having done any such thing.  As a result, the document is marked secret.  This is enough to get several volumes of material and even the whole case classified accordingly.  Later the state prosecutors will insist that the case be heard behind closed doors. 

Trials behind closed doors are very convenient for the prosecutors. Journalists are only able to learn about the court proceedings from the defence lawyers, who are also not able to give all the details, as they have to sign confidentiality agreements. What is more, the defence lawyers are usually only interested in talking about what could help their client, mistakes in the investigation, for example. This makes it hard to form an objective picture and figure out who it was, how, why, and in what circumstances who ordered and organised the crime. Most important, it makes it difficult to know just what the investigators managed to dig up, and whether or not the suspects on trial are really the right ones.   

This is precisely what has happened in the Politkovskaya murder trial. There are a few secret documents, several secret volumes, and then we have the state prosecutors calling for the case to be heard behind closed doors. The prosecutors were discouraged when they heard that Anna Politkovskaya's children wanted a public trial in spite of the prosecution's demands. This is a rare situation in Russian court practice, as the injured parties usually support the prosecution. But in this case events took a different turn. The lawyers for Politkovskaya's children, Ilya and Vera, said that they were adopting a neutral position. They did not want a sentence just for the sake of it, but wanted to know the truth and know that those on trial really did commit the crime and were not simply appointed to be the guilty party.

The court

Presiding at the trial is Colonel Yevgeny Zubov, best known to journalists as the judge in the trial for the murder of Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Dmitry Kholodov.

Russian Army officers were accused of this murder and the case was therefore heard in the military court. Yevgeny Zubov passed a not guilty verdict and Moskovsky Komsomolets journalists have had a somewhat prejudiced attitude towards him ever since, though most court reporters say that Zubov is a man of principle and a very democratically-minded judge.

He has a lot of experience working with juries. Despite the lawyers' complaints that their rights are being restricted, it is rare to see as much freedom in Russian courts as there has been here during the court proceedings. Zubov allows debate between the participants in the trial during the hearings, and when it comes to decisions (on appeals, for example), he makes them open to real and not just formal discussion.  

The jury

There were 20 jurors at the start, 12 main jurors and eight reserve jurors, ten men and ten women, aged from 35 to 60.  When turning down the prosecution's request to have the case heard behind closed doors, Judge Zubov said, "if any members of the jury say that pressure is being put on them, the trial will immediately continue behind closed doors". Journalists took this as a guideline and since then we try not even to look in the jurors' direction. We share our thoughts about the proceedings during the breaks, but the moment we catch sight of any members of the jury in the corridor we all fall silent straight away.

We value the jury immensely. We have them to thank for the fact that we journalists have been allowed to stay in the courtroom. This is an incredible story in itself. The first day of the actual murder trial began with a statement from Judge Zubov. "I've been informed that the jurors refuse to enter the courtroom if the press is there", he said.

Murad Musayev, lawyer for one of the accused, objected. He said that the law has no provisions for holding a trial behind closed doors on the grounds that jurors do not want to take part in hearings with journalists present. Karina Moskalenko, lawyer for Anna Politkovskaya's family, backed him up, saying that so long as none of the jurors had received any threats there were no grounds for holding the trial behind closed doors. Zubov remonstrated that, "by the time real facts come to light it will be too late", and declared that the trial would take place behind closed doors. 

The next day, Yevgeny Kolesov, one of the reserve jurors for the trial, spoke out on Echo of Moscow radio station. He decided to speak up after hearing the radio station's journalist call the jurors cowards.

"The jurors were all indignant at being made to look so stupid", Kolesov said. "We discussed the situation. And today we sent a joint statement to the judge, saying, first, that we did not make any statements during the trial, neither yesterday nor today. And second, that our request is only that video and TV cameras not be present. We have no objection to the written press and the mass media taking part in these hearings".  

Kolesov then sent the presiding judge a personal statement asking to be released from his juror duties as he did not want to take part in "an improper trial". Zubov released him and ordered that the trial be public.

After Kolesov left, another three jurors were also released for various reasons, and there are now 16 jurors remaining.

The accused

Of the four accused, three are charged with involvement in Anna Politkovskaya's murder. Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, the former Interior Ministry organised crime department officer, is considered to have planned the murder. The prosecutors say he set up the criminal group, distributed the roles, organised the crime, purchased a gas pistol that he had remade into a firearm, and gave it to the killer.

Not long before Politkovskaya's murder, Khadzhikurbanov was released from the pre-trial detention centre where he had been held in connection with charges of crimes committed in his official capacity. Of all the accused, he seems to have the greatest interest in the trial's outcome. He usually appears at the hearings with files of documents and searches through them, takes notes. He has a wife and five children waiting for him at home.   

The Makhmudov brothers from Chechnya are named as accomplices. The prosecutors say that Dzhabrail Makhmudov took part in tracking Politkovskaya and brought the killer to her home on the day of the murder. Ibragim Makhmudov is said to have played a more modest part, waiting until he saw Politkovskaya's car pass by, and then informing the killer that she would soon arrive home. The prosecutors say that the Makhmudovs' older brother Rustam actually carried out the murder. He is on the international wanted list.  

Dzhabrail Makhmudov graduated from Moscow State Social University with distinction. He returned to the university to get a second degree, this time in law, and was planning to begin post-graduate studies.

Ibragim Makhmudov graduated from the same university, though not without difficulty - he was suspended seven times. A case of meningitis in childhood left him with delayed speech and reactions.

The fourth suspect is FSB Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov. He was initially arrested as an accomplice in Politkovskaya's murder, but in the end the charges made against him are unrelated to the murder case. He was arrested on abuse of power and blackmail charges dating back to 2002. He is said to have carried out these acts together with Khadzhikurbanov, hence the two cases being bundled together as one. Practically nothing is known about Ryaguzov's private life - nothing so surprising for an FSB officer.

All four deny the charges against them. 

The prosecutors

If the prosecutors are already in the courtroom, you can be sure the judge will soon arrive and the proceedings will begin. Either they have a remarkable intuition for the judge's arrival or they simply do not want to spend any longer than necessary in one room with the accused, the lawyers and the journalists. 

Yulia Safina and Vera Pashkovskaya are the state prosecutors, very pleasant and attractive women in well-ironed uniforms, knee-length skirts and high heels. Safina seems to be the senior in rank (I confess that I don't really understand the stars and emblems on their epaulettes, but she is the one who more often takes the initiative in addressing the jurors). A short, slightly plump blonde woman of 35-40, she is considered a successful and experienced prosecutor and has taken part in many jury trials. 

Pashkovskaya looks younger and taller, maybe because of her high heels, or perhaps because she is slimmer. She ties up her luxuriant long dark hair, leaving curls that any woman would envy hanging down on her shoulders.

The prosecutors' table, facing the jurors, is closest of all to the judge's bench. Here, the prosecutors question the witnesses and report the results of experts' findings.

Unlike many prosecutors, they are happy to speak to the press and readily give clarifications, but never make comments of the kind that "need to get approval".

The lawyers

I think of them as the ‘protection brigade', an image that comes to mind when I see them sitting in a row in front of the cage where the accused sit, as if protecting the accused from the jurors. 

There are seven lawyers, but only three of them stand out. Murad Musayev sits closest to the prosecutors and the judge's bench. He is defending Dzhabrail Makhmudov. Musayev is the youngest of the lawyers and also the most talkative, always happy to make comments to the press. He is usually the one who starts lengthy disputes with the prosecutors and likes to say things like, "Your honour, let's not confuse Gogol with Hegel", or "the prosecution is tilting at windmills". Prosecutor Safina complained about him, "this is the first time I've come across a defence lawyer who thinks he can teach the prosecution how to present evidence!" Novaya Gazeta wrote that Musayev is dragging out the trial and turning it into a farce. 

On Musayev's right is Saidakhmet Arsamerzayev, the lawyer defending Makhmudov's brother. Arsamerzayev is older, does not show his emotions or play around with language. He makes his objections and protests calmly but confidently.   

Next in the row is Valery Chernikov. This is his first jury trial and he is defending FSB Lieutenant Colonel Ryaguzov. He wears a thin-striped suit and sometimes smokes a cigar on the courtroom's back porch during breaks. He is relaxed about speaking with the press (hands in his pockets and upper lip slightly upturned), and comments on matters that have no relation to his client.

The other defence lawyers do not stand out so much. They are Andrei Litvin (defending Sergei Khadzhikurbanov) and Ryaguzov's second lawyer, Andrei Trepykhalin. While Musayev and the others do battle with the prosecutors, he reads the case materials.

Finally, quiet as mice, are Galina Tarlykova and Asiya Kuvshinkina, the lawyers appointed for the defence of Ibragim Makhmudov and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov. At one of the latest hearings, Ibragim Makhmudov said he was renouncing the appointed defence lawyer, so now there is one lawyer less.

The injured parties

The interests of Anna Politkovskaya's children, Vera and Ilya, are represented at the trial by two lawyers well known in Russia for their human rights work, Karina Moskalenko and Anna Stavitskaya. In their opinion, the case before the Moscow District Military Court is just an interim stage. "The main suspects have not been found - those who ordered the killing, those who financed it and those who pulled the trigger", Stavitskaya said. "So we cannot see this case as over and investigated. The case now before the court has been separated out from the case the investigators are working on, and the investigation is still underway. Our task, as representatives of the injured parties, is to ensure that this investigation does continue and that everyone involved in this crime is brought to trial and receives the sentence they deserve".

Episode on the sidelines

There is another victim in the case, businessman Eduard Ponikarov, who appeared at the court only during examination of an episode unrelated to Politkovskaya's murder. He told the court in detail how Khadzhukurbanov and three other police officials beat him up in the summer of 2002, after bursting into the office of the travel agency where he worked at the time. They were then joined by two FSB officers, (one of whom was Ryaguzov). 

Throughout this tale with its chilling details Ryaguzov struggled to keep himself from laughing and at one point openly let out a snort. Khadzhikurbanov grinned and chuckled from time to time. The jurors did not notice. They were listening to Ponikarov. When Ponikarov related how Khadzhikurbanov beat him half to death, jabbed a finger in the wound on his forehead and tried to stick a pen in his ear, one of the jurors whispered "bastard" in anger. Two of the women jurors wept in silence. Ponikarov was then cross-examined for three hours by the defence lawyers, and this softened the tones somewhat. Ryaguzov and Khadzhikurbanov emerged in not such bloodthirsty colours. Perhaps that made it particularly unpleasant when, as I approached the cage after the break, Khadzhikurbanov asked, "Aren't you scared to be in the same room as us?"   And how!

The evidence

The case against the Makhmudov brothers rests primarily on mobile phone billing evidence that shows that Dzhabrail Makhmudov was within the zone of the cellular network transmission tower near Politkovskaya's house on the day of the murder, and Ibragim Makhmudov was within the zone of another transmission tower also in central Moscow. The itemisation of the brothers' phone calls shows that they called each other not long before Politkovskaya was murdered on October 7, 2006, and again shortly after the murder took place.

During the court hearings, we were shown material recorded by the external surveillance cameras installed not far from where the crime took place and at the entrances to the building where Politkovskaya lived. We were told that the criminals rehearsed the crime and were shown a car that parked by the building several times before the murder (the Makhmudov brothers had a similar car). We saw footage of a man, whose face was not visible, getting out of the car and heading for the building entrance. We also saw Politkovskaya herself enter the building, and then saw the suspected murderer leave the building in a hurry.     

As I see it, the state prosecutors have succeeded in proving that Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov did indeed live in Moscow in 2006 and called each other quite often. In 2007, Dzhabrail Makhmudov used his older brother's car. He knew the mobile phone numbers of Ryaguzov and Khadzhikurbanov.

The prosecutors have said nothing about Khadzhikurbanov and how he organised a criminal group, planned a murder and so on.

This is the first time I have seen a court trial in which the defence has the advantage over the evidence collected by the investigators. First of all, the lawyers responded to the billing evidence with evidence from cell phone network operators stating that cell phone network transmission towers in urban areas have a radius that can range from 500 metres to 1.5 kilometres.

The lawyers drew the jury's attention to the fact that the Makhmudov brothers are charged with stalking Politkovskaya, and from the state prosecutors we heard that they rehearsed the murder on October 3, 5, and 6, 2006. Dzhabrail Makhmudov came to the scene of the crime, while Ibragim (as they had planned) stood at the intersection of the Garden Ring and Malaya Dmitrovka, waiting for Politkovskaya to drive past so that he could then call the hitman to say that the victim would soon be home. 

But the cell phone network billing records show that on October 3, 5 and 6, Ibragim was in Tushino, and Dzhabrail was variously on Stromynka, Kutuzovsky Prospekt and Lomonosovsky Prospekt, all areas quite far away from Politkovskaya's home.

From the defence lawyers, we and the jurors learned that many clues were found at the scene of the crime - fingerprints, hairs, objects that bear traces of the suspected murderer's DNA, in particular cigarette butts with traces of saliva and the pistol with traces of the killer's sweat. But the reports on this evidence presented by the forensic experts are more in favour of Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov. "Our clients were checked to see if these were their traces", defence lawyer Musayev said to the journalists. "The fingerprints were not theirs. The hairs were not theirs, and the DNA traces were not theirs. If this is not the DNA of these two brothers, it is probably not the third brother's DNA either. They all have the same father and mother". 

The forensic reports show that the DNA of some of the other suspects in the case, including Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, does not match the traces found at the murder scene.

We also heard some results of forensic analysis that was curious in some cases but also came out in favour of the accused. For example, a hair was founded in the silencer of the gun used to kill Politkovskaya. The forensic experts proved the hair belonged to an animal and not a person. It was then compared to the hair of Ibragim Makhmudov's dog, but the experts declared that it was actually a cat's hair.

Evidence pointing at others, not charged

Defence lawyer Musayev said that the investigation had collected a lot of evidence implicating other people in Politkovskaya's murder, but at some point the decision was taken to abandon the initial version of events.  

"They had identified more or less a group of people, especially those who could have been tracking Politkovskaya", he said. "They were people from the search and operations departments in a number of law enforcement and secret service agencies. They identified the approximate group of people who could have been involved in organising the crime and working out where Politkovskaya lived. But then the prosecutor's office had to make themselves look good in the public eye by saying they'd solved the Politkovskaya case, and in the end scapegoats were found to appear as the accused in court. In gathering this group of people, implicated and not implicated, they have simply chosen those whose bosses will do nothing to protect them, who will be the most harmless and helpless. There are many suspects against whom real evidence exists: they are not in court today, but are walking free".

Speaking to journalists a year ago, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said that those who gave the order for Politkovskaya's murder were not in Russia but abroad. "This was in the interests above all of people and organisations seeking to destabilise the situation in the country, change the constitutional order, create a crisis situation and bring about a return to the old management system in which money and oligarchs decided everything", he said.

Most observers were sceptical about Chaika's statement, all the more so as a year and a half after that press conference, Russia's law enforcement officials have yet to name those suspected of ordering the murder from abroad.

The end of the trial is in sight. Pavel Ryaguzov's lawyers are expected to present evidence in favour of their client at the next court session. Then, after the addenda stage, the oral hearings will start. For now, there is a break until February 2.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData