Politkovskaya murder trial must be open

May 31, 2013
Anna Politkovskaya

[On June 3, the second trial of suspects in the murder of the muck-raking journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, will commence in the Moscow City Court. Politkovskaya, who was famous for her critical stance towards the Putin government—particularly its conduct in Chechnya—was gunned down in her apartment building in October 2006. Novaya Gazeta, the paper for which Anna Politkovskaya, reports here on the attempts to keep the trial closed—Ed.]

On June 3 at 10:30 am, the Moscow City Court will start the trial of the defendants charged with murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta. The defendants are Sergei Khadjikurbanov, a previously—convicted former Organized Crime Unit (UBOP) operative; Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, a criminal kingpin, also previously convicted, and his nephews, Ibragim, Jabrail, and Rustam Makhmudov. According to the indictment, Rustam Makhmudov carried out the actual murder.

This is the second attempt by the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General’s Office to convict the suspects. The first trial back in 2009 ended in acquittal by jury. However, the verdict was later overturned by the Supreme Court and the case was sent back to the investigators.

A lot has changed since then. The group of defendants now includes Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, who, as Novaya Gazeta journalists and the prosecution argued during the first trial, was one of the organizers of the murder. However, back then he was a witness, although he appeared in court handcuffed (at that time he was serving time for another crime). They also caught Rustam Makhmudov. He was apprehended at his residence in Achkhoy-Martan by the local law-enforcement officers, which required a minor military operation. One of the biggest mysteries is why he returned to Chechnya from Turkey, where he lived under a different name, according to an officially issued Russian passport. Another mystery is who helped him flee when he was on the federal wanted list.

The rest of the defendants are the same, with the exception of Lieutenant Colonel Ryaguzov, an FSB official who was friends with part of that group. He acted as an “agent-mentor” to the other part of the group. He was also a murder suspect, although the charges were dropped.

There are empty seats on that defendants’ bench, even if we don’t take into account the unidentified person who ordered the hit. What is most surprising for the victim’s family, Vera and Ilya Politkovsky, as well as the Novaya journalists, is the fact that this group of defendants does not include Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, the former officer of the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs for the City of Moscow, who at the first trial was the chief witness, placed under protective custody.

Well, technically a division chief of a special unit in charge of surveillance shouldn’t really be one of the defendants. That is despite the fact that with the assistance by the victims’ attorneys and the journalists, who conducted their own investigation of Anna Politkovskaya murder, it was proved that he was implicated in that crime, which was obvious during the first trial.

However, this time around he also got a break. Pavlyuchenkov plea-bargained and was tried “under special procedure”— that is, without examination of evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to 11 years. However, the victims were strongly opposed to that. In their opinion, as well as in the opinion of Novaya, Pavlyuchenkov violated the terms and conditions of the plea-bargain: he substantially underplayed his role in that crime, and hereby interfered with gathering of evidence on the rest of the defendants (some details he simply omitted). Pavlyuchenkov was also required to name the person who ordered the murder, but decided to get into politics instead, trying to legitimize the theory of Berezovsky’s involvement in the hopes of securing some leniency.

And he succeeded. The appeal on his verdict was denied. So, at the next trial he will again take his place at the witness stand.

The date has been set for a preliminary hearing. At that hearing, apart from discussing technical and procedural issues they will make the most important decisions: whether there will be a jury trial and whether that trial will be public.

As understood by Novaya, all the defendants insist on a jury trial. As to the openness of the trial, this should be discussed separately. Indeed, the preliminary hearing will not be open to the public or media. That is mandated by the law. The primary concern is the main trial, because that case folder still contains quite a few blank pages stamped “confidential”. What exactly is confidential even the victim’s attorneys couldn’t find out.

One of the reasons for this confidentiality could be the fact that FSB officers were in charge of certain operational aspects related to this case. Among the witnesses are a number of people who reported to Pavlyuchenkov—that is, the Interior Ministry undercover officers who spied on Anna Politkovskaya while on duty, using official vehicles and, of course, some professional techniques that are not to be disclosed.

All this quite possibly provides an incentive for them to close the case. As you might recall, they made such an attempt at the first trial, at the Moscow District Military Court, but failed.

The position of Anna Politkovskaya’s children, their attorneys and the Novaya journalists is quite clear: it should be an open trial. That’s the only option. Nothing prevents the court from asking the public to leave the courtroom before reading confidential documents or questioning undercover witnesses. The rest should be public, so that nobody has any doubts as to the fairness of the verdict, and so that the country finally finds out who is killing journalists—and why.

If they do make the trial a closed one, the Novaya journalists, witnesses, victims and their attorneys should think twice before participating.