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Who pulled the strings?

Yulia Vishnevetskaya, Markian Ostaptschuk / ccJune 9, 2014

Despite the long prison sentences handed down in the Anna Politkovskaya murder trial, it's still unclear who ordered her killing. The high-profile Russian journalist was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

Human rights activists hold placards with black-and-white photos of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, 2007, at a demonstration for freedom of speech (Photo: Johannes Eisele dpa/lno)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Anna Politkovskaya worked for many years for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Now her colleagues there are insisting that the investigation into her death must continue until it establishes who ordered the killing.

Politkovskaya's children, Ilya and Vera, are making the same demand. But this is precisely where the investigators keep running into difficulties.

On Monday (09.06.2014), a Moscow court found five people guilty of carrying out the murder. They were given severe prison sentences: life imprisonment for Rustam Makhmudov, who is believed to have pulled the trigger; 14 years in a labor camp for his brother Dzhabrail, and 12 years for another brother, Ibragim.

Their uncle, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev - who organized the crime - was also sentenced to life imprisonment. And a former policeman, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, was given 20 years for his involvement.

In 2012, Dmitri Pavlyuchenkov - a former senior officer in the Moscow police - was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for his part in the murder. He had used his connections with the authorities to spy on the journalist, and to provide the murderers with weapons.

Former Moscow police chief Dmitri Pavlyuchenkov in court, December 2012. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Valery Sharifulin)
Police officer Dmitri Pavlyuchenkov confessed his involvement and cooperated with the investigationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Anna Politkovskaya, who was a vocal critic of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block on October 7, 2006. The Novaya Gazeta journalist reported extensively from Chechnya in the northern Caucasus, documenting human rights abuses there. The men convicted of killing her are Chechens.

However, human rights campaigners and journalists have speculated that the people pulling the strings may have been senior players in Russia's power elite who were afraid of what more Politkovskaya's investigative work might have uncovered.

Previous trials

This is already the third trial in the Politkovskaya case. The first ended in 2009 with not-guilty verdicts. "Back then," remembers Novaya Gazeta's court reporter Nadezhda Pruzenkova, "the feeling was that these men were involved in the murder, but there was no firm evidence at the time."

Police chief Pavlyuchenkov was called as a witness at the first trial, not as a co-accused. According to Pruzenkova, he didn't say very much.

Anna Politkovskaya's children Vera und Ilya in court, June 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)
Politkovskaya's children, Vera and Ilya, want the investigation to continue until the person who masterminded the murder is foundImage: Reuters

During the first trial, she says, the investigators were sloppy in their work. The lawyer for the accused was able to exploit this, said Alexander Cherkasov of the Russian human rights organization Memorial: "Because evidence had been handled carelessly, the lawyer Murad Musayev was able to convince the jury that the whole indictment was unjustified."

The second trial also ended inconclusively, with the jury being dismissed. Since then, though, several things have changed. Pavlyuchenkov went from being a witness to being a co-accused. He confessed, and agreed to cooperate with the investigators. The former police chief then named accomplices: Rustam Makhmudov and Lom-Ali Gaitukayev.

Difficult circumstances

During the third trial, which began in January 2014, the court also examined statements from Pavlyuchenkov's former subordinate, Oleg Golubovich. This policeman witnessed numerous meetings where the murder was being planned. He contacted Novaya Gazeta on his own initiative and declared that he was prepared to testify, if his own and his family's safety could be guaranteed.

"He'd recently got married and had a baby. Novaya Gazeta arranged secure accommodation for him abroad, where he now lives," said Pruzenkova.

DW spoke to Politkovskaya's son, Ilya. "At first no one wanted to believe Golubovich, because he was part of this group of criminals," he said. But then, he explained, the policeman reported at length about payments he had seen, and about how he had listened to conversations between the men, who were often drunk. The investigators were able to correlate information he provided with other available facts.

A man and a young boy crouch beside bunches of flowers and a photo of Politkovskaya outside the apartment block where she was killed, on the third anniversary of her murder. (Photo: EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV (c) dpa)
Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block in 2006Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The human rights activist Alexander Cherkasov points out that the investigators were operating under very difficult circumstances. "If the public doesn't believe in a fair trial, the public prosecutor's work is sloppy, and courts are put under pressure, it's very difficult to hold a trial that will convince everyone, including the skeptics," he said. In his opinion, the public prosecutor's work during the third trial was much better. But that still doesn't mean the crime has fully been solved.

'Still many more'

Pruzenkova believes that Pavlyuchenkov and Gaitukayev must have been closest to whoever masterminded the murder. Since they are the two who planned it, they are most likely to know who issued the contract for the killing. But neither of them will talk. "Maybe they're afraid," said Pruzenkova. She stressed that investigators still have a number of other tasks to attend to.

Ilya Politkovsky believes that these men had been working as contract killers for many years. "It's clear to me that only a small number of the people involved have been convicted," he said. "There are many more of them."