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“It’s a deeply personal matter”: An interview with Vadim Prokhorov, Boris Nemtsov’s lawyer

For Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer for murdered Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, finding justice is more than a matter of professionalism. Русский

27 February, 2015: Police officers stand guard near the crime scene. (с) Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Two years on from the murder of Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin’s wall, I spoke to Nemtsov’s lawyer to find out how the investigation is progressing.

You’re the lawyer for Nemtsov’s family. What does that entail, and what is your, and the family’s, role in the trial?

I was Nemtsov’s lawyer from 2001 until his death, and that’s the most important thing for me. I am now working with my colleague Olga Mikhailova, a well-known lawyer who specialises in work for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). We represent the interests of Zhanna Nemtsova, Boris’s daughter who, as is the case with other members of the family, is recognised as an injured party.

Is this always the case – that if someone is murdered, their immediate family members are recognised as injured parties?

Nearly always, it’s the usual practice. There are a number of elements involved in representing the interests of injured parties. In some cases, for example, it’s a question of compensation for personal injury.

But in this case everybody, and Zhanna in particular, said that they didn’t want a penny in compensation from the bastards who murdered Boris. It’s a matter of principle. It’s a personal thing for us, me included. I don’t care if someone thinks it’s unprofessional.

10 May, 2012: Boris Nemtsov at a protest meeting at Chistye prudy, Moscow. Image: Evgeny Isaev. I wasn’t just Nemtsov’s lawyer for 14 years. I think of myself as his friend. Not his only or closest friend, but one of his friends and colleagues. And I’ve never once regretted that. So for me, as for Zhanna, whose interests I represent, it’s a deeply personal matter — we are helping to uncover the truth, so that those who not only perpetrated the crime, but those who aided and abetted them, are found and brought to justice.      

Does that mean that you are conducting your own investigation, or are you just cooperating with the Russian investigators regarding the actions they are taking and the documentary evidence they are using?

Our opportunities for carrying out our own investigation are extremely limited. But we are trying to make the most of the ones we have: we forward requests, study documents; at the investigation stage we filed a lot of submissions, mostly about the need to reclassify the crime.

It’s completely clear that Article 105, Part 2 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which covers “murder committed by a group of persons for gain” (in other words, a contract killing) can be applied here only at a stretch. Killing anyone is wrong in principle. But many countries recognise murder motivated by the victim’s professional and public activity as a separately designated crime.

Russian law does in fact contain such a definition: Article 277 of the Criminal Code refers to “an attempt on the life of a government or public figure” — and this is the article we have been asking the court to use.

“We cannot allow the murders of various kinds of oppositionists to be classified as attempts on the lives of government or public figures”

Our request has been refused. Why it was refused was explained by the counsel for the prosecution, prosecutor Antipov, during a preliminary court hearing in July 2016. I quote his words as closely as I can — they were, after all, most likely handed down from “the top”: “We cannot allow the murders of various kinds of oppositionists to be classified as attempts on the lives of government or public figures”.  

The Russian government is not ready to recognise “various kinds of oppositionists” as government or public figures.

But why does the crime need to be reclassified? What difference does it make which article the perpetrators are tried under?

Both crimes do indeed attract a custodial sentence of up to life imprisonment. Article 277, however, prescribes a longer minimum sentence than Article 105.

But that’s not the point. The main difference is that Article 277 has, in principle, no limitation period, the time allowed after the crime for an action to be brought. With Article 105, things are more complicated, and, without going into details, there could be a limitation period set in some cases. And, of course things need to be spelled out. If someone is killed for their political activity, you can’t treat the case as though it were an everyday murder. And Nemtsov was murdered, of course, for his political activity, what else?

Are there still petitions that have not been responded to?

As early as 22 April 2015, when the investigation was being led by Igor Krasnov, an experienced and sharp investigator who is now the deputy head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, we made a request for the investigation and questioning of numerous senior officials, most of them, at that point, from Chechnya.

We began with Ruslan Geremeyev, a battalion commander in the “Sever” [North] regiment where Zaur Dadayev, one of those accused of Nemtsov’s murder, served, and Ruslan’s uncle Suleiman Geremeyev, a Chechen representative in Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. Then two of Ruslan’s cousins, the Delimkhanov brothers – Adam, Ramzan Kadyrov’s right hand man and official successor, and Alibek, CIC of the “Sever” regiment.

Zaur Dadaev, Anzor and Shadid Gubashev, Temirlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhaev in court. (с) Mikhail Voskresensky / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.But now I realise that we should have paid attention to a third brother, Sharip Delimkhanov, one of whose underlings was Beslan Shavanov, a friend and colleague of Zaur Dadayev and another defendant in the trial. They were professional fighters and friends. Shavanov was killed at the beginning of March 2015. The official story is that he was blown up by a hand grenade during his arrest in Grozny.

During the court proceedings we did, however, manage to put Alibek Delimkhanov on the stand, although it then turned out that he suffered from severe amnesia and couldn’t remember anything that had taken place in the regiment two years earlier. He did nonetheless manage to remember Dadayev (“Yeah, he was there”) — and confirmed that he was related to Geremeyev, which we knew already, and he told the court that his unit of the “Sever” regiment were involved in Beslan Shavanov’s arrest.

I am in no doubt that Shavanov’s death was no accident, and that a decision had been taken not to hand over anyone from Chechnya connected to the case. Look at the guys who are in the dock now: the Gubashev brothers, Anzor and Shadid, who were arrested in Ingushetia, as was Zaur Dadayev; another defendant, Temirlan Eskerkhanov, was picked up at a Moscow flat supposedly belonging to Artur Geremeyev, but in fact to Ruslan, his uncle; and Khamzat Bakhayev was arrested somewhere in the Moscow region. I think all this tells you a lot.

Vadim Prokhorov at the Boris Nemtsov Forum, October 2016. Source: Facebook.So, my colleague Olga Mikhailova and I requested the investigation and questioning of Ruslan and Suleiman Geremeyev, Adam and Alibek Delimkhanov, and Ramzan Kadyrov. After all, according to some sources, people were coming up to Adam Delimkhanov in the Duma soon after Nemtsov’s killing, shaking his hand and congratulating him on a successful operation — at least one parliamentary deputy told me this. I don’t, however, think that Adam instigated the assassination, though I’m sure he was one of the organisers.

Because the concepts “right hand” and “instigator” don't really match up?

Exactly, although the question of who was ultimately responsible is still open. There are a number of possibilities.

Take another look at the lower echelon fixers: during the court proceedings, it became very clear that — and I quote a key witness, Zarina Isoyeva, who worked as a maid or cleaner for the gang in Moscow — Ruslan Geremeyev was “the lad in charge”. Not Ruslan Mukhudinov, Geremeyev’s driver and foot soldier (not to say errand boy), whom the prosecution is trying to nail as the main man, and who supposedly hired Dadayev and the others for 15 million roubles [£208,000].

So where is Geremeyev? Is there a search warrant out for him?

Not officially. According to my sources, there’s a tick next to his name, so he should have been detained when he came to the police’s attention, at least in Moscow, but there’s no official search warrant. And that is maddening and outrageous.

In other words, Geremeyev can happily live, free and easy, in Chechnya?

Nobody is denying that he travels freely around Chechnya. Perhaps he avoids appearing on TV, which he doesn’t need anyway, but he lives pretty peacefully.

And Mukhudinov, is he still alive?

No one knows. Mukhudinov isn’t part of an influential circle and no one is very interested in what happens to him, but it’s unlikely anyone would bother to get rid of him. We, of course, are interested in his whereabouts, we believe he is also complicit in the murder, but only as a very low-level organiser.   

What has happened about all the petitions you made for these people to be summoned by the court?

Igor Krasnov, with all due respect to him, granted our request only for Ruslan Geremeyev to be questioned — and we have no idea of his whereabouts. The court documents include a snarky answer from either a local police officer or a member of the Chechen Investigative Committee, saying that he came to Geremeyev’s house, knocked on the gate, no one opened and he left.

After several months, as we collected information from both official and unofficial sources, we requested that Kadyrov’s closest “protector” and friend in Moscow be brought in for questioning. The man I’m referring to is Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard of Russia.

"I love Russia" reads a placard at a demonstration on the first anniversary of the murder of Nemtsov. Source: Klausvienresh / Wikipedia.As I understand it, if Putin is ever displeased with one of Kadyrov’s exploits, Zolotov will always stand up for him before the president. He’s an interesting character: he stood beside Boris Yeltsin on the famous tank in 1991, with his then boss Korzhakov beside him: Korzhakov actually couldn’t stand Zolotov and would call him a scoundrel in public, although these days he avoids saying that anymore. Zolotov then became Moscow mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s chief bodyguard, and between 2000 and 2013 he headed Vladimir Putin’s personal guard and was simultaneously deputy head of Russia’s Federal Protective Service (FSO).      

As I understand it, Zolotov is still ensconced at the FSO, as well as the National Guard. And in my opinion, the National Guard itself is turning into a fully fledged intelligence agency that is able to carry out certain security operations — dealing with oppositionists, for example.

Of course, our request for Zolotov to be questioned was also turned down, although formal grounds exist for investigating him as he is the head of the National Guard, in which Dadayev served. So he may not be Dadayev and Geremeyev’s immediate superior officer, but he is their commander.   

How did Krasnov explain these refusals to cooperate?

We never had any sensible explanation. The investigating officer is supposedly an independent  operator… A week after our requests for the Geremeyevs, the Delimkhanovs and Kadyrov to be questioned, General Krasnov was removed from the case, in Byzantine style — kicked upstairs to be deputy Investigative Committee chief. It’s wasn’t that Krasnov was a dissident or a strong liberal sympathiser (heaven forbid), but he liked to get the bit between his teeth, and so stood out among his mediocre Committee colleagues.

Krasnov was replaced by Nikolay Tutevich. I’ve nothing against the man: he seems like an interesting, distinguished person, who was awarded a “For Bravery” medal for his service in Afghanistan (a proper military decoration not given to armchair generals). But his administrative weight and capabilities are not in the same class as Krasnov’s. But even Tutevich twice, in July and September 2015, prepared indictments against both Ruslan Geremeyev and Ruslan Mukhudinov. He was not formally obliged to agree this with Aleksandr Bastyrkin, the Investigative Committee’s head, but it was the done thing, and both times Bastyrkin turned him down.

I want to stress that we, as Zhanna Nemtsova’s lawyers, are not only, and not even so much interested in who is in the dock, as who ordered and organised the crime 

It was only on 30 October 2015 that Tutevich, who finally seemed to have gotten the hint, filed a charge in absentia against Mukhudinov alone (although it did read: “and other unknown persons”), which Bastyrkin approved. In other words, the links in the chain leading upwards were cut off at this stage.

I want to stress that we, as Zhanna Nemtsova’s lawyers, are not only, and not even so much interested in who is in the dock (although it’s essential, of course, to unravel the roles and degrees of guilt of all concerned), as who ordered and organised the crime and who has otherwise remained outside the frame. It’s totally obvious that the next link in the chain has to be Ruslan Geremeyev at the very minimum, and the court investigation has confirmed this. But it really needs to lead at least as far as Ramzan Kadyrov. Above that… is a different matter.  

How do you rate the investigative team? Are they doing all they can, within the bounds imposed upon them, or are they involved in covering the traces?

We are not satisfied with the investigation, and I certainly don’t want to give them an easy ride. I don’t want to pre-empt the jury’s decision, but I believe that at least some of the accused were directly involved in the killing. The prosecution counsels in court (public prosecutor Maria Semenenko and others) are concentrating on these men.

Whereas we, not the prosecution, are asking all the questions about the organisers — the Geremeyevs and Delimkhanovs. We insisted on calling Alibek Delimkhanov, and it was perfectly clear that he was lying when he suddenly lost his memory. So yes, those above have ordered to cut the links leading to at least Kadyrov, and possibly higher.

It doesn’t take much to build conspiracy theories around the actual murder, but there is certainly some scope for the imagination: the details of Nemtsov’s shooting are still unclear. The weapon, for example, has never been found; a snowplough very conveniently masked the scene of the crime and there is no CCTV footage from the Federal Protective Service. How significant are these gaps?

There are gaps, but they are not the ones the conspiracy theorists dwell on. There is ballistic evidence; there is forensic evidence. I agree that the snowplough is suspicious, but I hope we’ll be able to examine the driver in court (he has already been questioned during the investigation). If anyone thinks he was an accessory to the crime, let them prove it.

The conspiracy theorists also claim that nearby traffic was stopped at the moment of the crime. This is rubbish: it wasn’t busy at that time on a Friday evening, but it was flowing the whole time. This is clearly visible on at least two lots of footage shown in court, shot from different angles at the time of the killing.

FSO officers stand guard near the Kremlin. (с) Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Of course, it’s a pity the weapon was never found, and I can’t believe there is no CCTV footage of the shooting. I think they are being kept out of the picture deliberately: Nemstov was obviously being tailed — not because his murder was being plotted, but because a mass protest was planned two days after. The court documents, of course, provide no trace of the surveillance and cannot do so, and no current government figure can ever confirm its presence. But I believe that the footage exists and can tell us who was tailing him.

Do you think that Evgeny Molodykh, the first witness on the scene, might have been the person tailing Nemtsov?

I don’t think so. I think the tail was following a bit further behind. This witness hasn’t yet been called to testify in court, but I hope he will be. I’ve heard he is part of some rock scene, tattooed from head to toe, and, in general, looks nothing like a spook. Of course, the conspiracy theorists will tell you that that’s precisely how a spy or an undercover cop ought to dress, like a heavy rocker immersed in his headphones. But that’s conspiracy theorists for you – they can turn anything into proof of a plot. If a crow flies overhead, it’s definitely a drone in disguise.

There are still lots of questions, but not usually the ones being asked by amateur sleuths.

So where do we look for answers?

The people who killed Nemtsov knew his home address — unlikely to be found just like that on the internet — and the address of his country house, which even his friends didn’t really know. So they were looking out for him. During the investigation we also got information that Jabrayil, one of the guys who hung out at the flats on Veyernaya Street [where the men accused lived prior to arrest], worked not even for the cops, but for the FSB or FSO.

The criminals obviously had their own channels of information, and equally obviously, the security services are now busy covering up the crime on the orders of the people at the top. Finally, bullets don’t fly on their own. The scenario they developed — a sudden, sharp and provocative murder, a few bullets in the back and a swift getaway — is a trademark style of people from Chechnya.

The question isn’t whether the security services were involved, but what role they played — and which security services they were

The conspiracy theorists, of course, try to deny that this was the MO, insisting that Nemtsov was shot in the stomach, and adding, as though they were discovering America: “The security services were involved here!” Of course the security services were involved.

The case is being dealt with in Moscow’s district military court, rather than the city court system, precisely because at least one of the accused, Zaur Dadayev, worked in the security agencies and at the time of Nemtsov’s murder was a serving officer in the National Guard . As was Ruslan Geremeyev, who is unfortunately still missing from the dock. And General Viktor Zolotov, the head of this high-profile special service, is a close friend of Ramzan Kadyrov.

The question isn’t whether the security services were involved, but what role they played — and which security services they were.

The answer to that probably depends on the question of why Nemtsov was killed.

The wheels of this tragedy may have been set in motion in the spring of 2014, when Nemtsov, on a visit to Kyiv, answered a question from a girl with the words: “Vladimir Putin is really fucked up”, and she had nothing better to do than to post this answer on the internet, and the people in power in one republic, and in fact all over the country, and their close associates with criminal mindsets, decided that this remark required an equally strong response.

Evgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the New Times, wrote a very interesting study of the story that was published in the summer of 2015 under the heading “A Figure of Speech” [link to Russian language site]. Albats wrote (partly on the basis of documents that I gave her) that one woman from Kadyrov’s outer circle submitted a motion to the courts, asking for Nemtsov to be criminally prosecuted  his words.

The thing took off: the submission was passed to the authorities on the Yaroslavl region, where Nemtsov was a member of the regional parliament, and from there the Investigative Committee sent the documents to the magistrates’ court in his official place of residence, for a formal indictment, but where a magistrate had the good sense to reject it on the grounds that it should have been forwarded from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and not the Investigative Committee. And by the late summer of 2014 it was clear that Nemtsov was, as criminal slang has it, “off the hook”. A formal indictment might have cooled things down. But what’s clear is that, even according to official sources, planning for the murder began in September 2014.

In May 2014, Nemtsov had also sent an official inquiry to Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of the FSB, about video footage that had appeared on the internet: what were truckfuls of heavily armed men, obviously from the Caucasus, and calling themselves Kadyrovists, doing in the Donbas? He received no response. In the course of 2014, Nemtsov published numerous posts on social media about the lawless situation in Chechnya, Kadyrov’s troops marching around football stadiums and so on.

The governments of OSCE  and PACE countries should all be interested in an effective investigation. Putin has no answer to the question of how the combined forces of Russia’s special services have been unable to uncover the truth

Another important factor needs to be taken into account: the entire Russian elite was furious about the Magnitsky Act, passed in 2012 and intended to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009, by refusing them travel visas. As far as I know, there were three people in particular who lobbied for the act: Bill Browder, an American living mainly in London (Magnitsky worked for him as a lawyer), Boris Nemtsov and Nemtsov’s friend and associate Vladimir Kara-Murza.

In Browder’s case, the limit of murders in London seems to have been reached, for the time being, after the Aleksandr Litvinenko case. But Nemtsov was assassinated, and Kara-Murza found himself in a coma and on life support twice in 18 months after being poisoned with an unknown substance.

So there were several reasons for Nemtsov’s death, but the trigger seems to have been his comment about “fucked up” Vladimir Putin.

I think that if Nemtsov had been driven home that night, further events might have turned out differently. But everything happened on the Kremlin’s doorstep, which I’m sure wasn’t in the government’s plan and probably explains why at least one of the perpetrators was hunted down. Unlike the conspiracy theorists, I don’t believe that they planned to kill Boris outside the Kremlin from the start.  

Indeed, on 7 March 2015, Bortnikov announced that men accused of carrying out the murder had been arrested, and even hurriedly named some names. I believe this was done deliberately, prior to the selection of preventative measures against the suspect. This was to ensure Kadyrov and his people couldn’t use their channels to get to Putin and turn the tables where the accused were concerned, given that these guys at the bottom of the ladder were already behind bars.

The trial is in progress now. How long do you think it will last, and what will happen then?

I think it will go on for at least another one and a half or two months. There is also the separate case against Mukhudinov “and other unknown persons”, which assumes that there were several people organising the killing (I’m in total agreement on this last point). This case has been separated from the main trial, but there has been no progress on it, which is not good. It is, after all, more important to go for the organisers and instigators. So we’ve started thinking about what else we can do.

Well, yes — the court is hardly likely to subpoena Kadyrov to appear.

And even if it does, he’ll have lost his memory, just like Alibek Delimkhanov. It’s so obvious that what is lacking is political will on the part of Russia’s leaders (which is now focussed on keeping a lid on the whole affair). We are, however, still going through all the legal routine — requests, complaints and so on, and will continue to do so.

But we also think it’s vitally important to put international pressure on the Russian authorities. Given their total control over the media, they can bullshit the Russian public by showing off the few guys who are now in the dock. But even from an official standpoint, the crime has not been solved and its organisers and instigators not found. Neither has any motive been discovered. Evidently they had been promised a load of cash – 15 million roubles (£208,000). I can well believe that, but does whoever promised it have 15 million roubles to spare? What’s his motive? For us, it’s obvious – the end of Boris Nemtsov’s political and public activity. And this is why we have started trying to find ways of monitoring the investigation at an international level.

How?   

It’s understandable that no country, be it totalitarian, authoritarian or democratic, welcomes outside interference in its criminal justice system.

On the other hand, however, if a country’s rulers are incapable of, or have no interest in, investigating the assassination of an opposition leader for obviously political reasons, this can’t be regarded as a purely internal issue. It’s a question of human rights, which since the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975 are no longer a sovereign internal matter, so we need to get international legal instruments involved. It’s also a matter of European and international security. Numerous enemies of Ramzan Kadyrov (and the Putin regime in general) have been assassinated, and not just in Qatar, the Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries, which is bad enough, but also in the centre of Europe, including Vienna and London.

I’m not playing the hero, but this has become a deeply personal matter for me. If it was someone I didn’t know, I might have thought twice about it

So the governments of OSCE  and PACE countries should all be interested in an effective investigation. Putin has no answer to the question of how the combined forces of Russia’s special services have been unable to uncover the truth two years after the crime. We need to put him on the spot, make him find excuses; push him into naming someone at least.

I am absolutely sure that sooner or later the chain will be untangled: a crime like this can’t be just swept under the carpet for ever. The only question is when.  

Do these international legal instruments exist?    

Yes. At the end of January 2016 Kersten Lundgren, a highly respected member of the Swedish parliament who represents the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, to which Nemtsov’s Parnas grouping belonged, launched an initiative that was supported by 60 PACE parliamentary deputies from various countries and factions on both the right and left and all positions in between. They signed the draft initiative of a report on the investigation into Nemtsov’s death under the umbrella of PACE.

This is a very serious matter that usually takes a long time, between a year and a year and a half. The draft was shelved in the office of PACE’s Spanish president Pedro Agramunt, who loves visiting Russia and took part in the Black Sea Winemaking Forum here a few months ago (and this forum’s main aim, as far as I can tell, is to support Russia’s position over the annexation of Crimea). Agramunt has also met Assad, and is generally an interesting character. But finally, on 10 March 2017, PACE’s office decided to launch the process of producing its report on the investigation of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination.

November 2016: Nemtsov Forum in the European Parliament. CC BY-ND 2.0 ALDE Communications / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This was triggered by the efforts of members of various parliaments, including Kersten Lundgren and Emanuelis Zingeris, a long term member of the Lithuanian parliament who was one of the signatories of his country’s Declaration of Independence in 1991 and a close friend of Nemtsov (he went out of his way to push for the report), and of Zhanna, who also put a lot of effort into it, even though she is not a PACE deputy.

Is this a big step forwards?

I think it is. And the further we go, the better our government will understand what a serious matter it is. They need to understand that they have no alternative; that they have to put their minds to establishing who ordered and organised the killing. We could, of course, say, “we’ll do it when Putin goes”, but we don’t know how long that will be. That  might be another 30 years…

The conspiracy theorists have their own approach: “We can’t establish anything officially, so let’s just lay out the problem — that everything’s bad”. But although I recognise that we can’t know the complete story now, let’s find out what we can, and at least increase the chance of some progress in identifying the organisers, and perhaps even the instigators. The investigation is seriously flawed, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Are you personally safe in this situation?  

Of course not. But I try not to think about it too much. I think the villains behind Boris Nemtsov’s assassination have gone as far as they can at the moment. We’ll wait and see what they’ll do next.

And in general, people who are involved in a real political fight know full well that it’s much more dangerous to challenge Ramzan Kadyrov or Viktor Zolotov in public than, say, Vladimir Putin.

I’ve never heard about anybody who criticised Putin in public apologising and taking back what they said – thank heavens! But people apologise to Kadyrov like their lives depended on it – and with good reason.

I’m not playing the hero, but this has become a deeply personal matter for me. If it was someone I didn’t know, I might have thought twice about it. But not in this case. If some people think we’re not doing things right, let them tell us how to do better. But there are certain objective factors that tell us that the approach we, and to some extent the investigation team, have taken — to look at the chain of command from the bottom upwards — is the right one. Unfortunately, the investigators stopped and dug themselves in at a certain point, but we think we need to dig deeper and will do so.

For the moment we’ve had no direct threats from either the Chechens or the Russian government. Admittedly, neither did Nemtsov; he was more afraid of being arrested. The situation in general is uneasy, not to say choppy. They are clearly winding up the pressure, and it has got worse over the last few weeks. Maybe it’s a fight between the various Kremlin Towers (or the security services around them), or maybe it’s something else. We can only wait and see.

 


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