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Circle of suspects widens in Politkovskaya case

Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin says the government won't repeat its earlier mistakes in the Politkovskaya case. (CPJ)

New York, October 6, 2010--Detectives with the federal Investigative Committee, the Russian agency responsible for investigating serious crimes, say they are probing a widening circle of suspects in the 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Agency officials made the disclosure during a September 28 meeting in Moscow with a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin told CPJ that his agency had "made a mistake" in "rushing" a previous case to trial against three suspected accomplices. A Moscow jury acquitted all three in February 2009. "This time we are making sure to thoroughly investigate all leads in the case," said Senior Investigator Petros Garibyan, who heads a team of detectives charged with solving Politkovsaya's murder.

The new suspects, whom detectives did not name, were described as ethnic Chechens who wanted to ingratiate themselves to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. There is no evidence directly linking the crime to Kadyrov, they said. Politkovskaya, special correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, had long reported on human rights abuses committed by government agents in Chechnya. She was shot in her apartment building on October 7, 2006.

Investigators said they still consider the original defendants to be suspects. They include former police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, who was accused of procuring the murder weapon and recruiting the killers, and brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, who allegedly conducted surveillance and served as lookouts. The government later appealed the verdicts and won the right to retry the defendants.

A third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, who fled the country, was identified at trial as the gunman. Bastrykin told CPJ that Rustam Makhmudov was believed to be hiding in a European country that he did not want to publicly identify. Bastrykin said he plans to travel there and "hopes to detain him soon."

"The Investigative Committee's statements give some hope that the killers of Anna Politkovskaya will be brought to justice," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "However, we continue to be dismayed by the continued impunity for the gunman and those who commissioned him four years after they murdered Anna. We call on Chairman Bastrykin and his team to engage all the resources at their disposal to bring all responsible for this murder to justice. We also call on the international police and intelligence community to assist the Russian investigation to the full extent provisioned by international law."

In an editorial published today, Novaya Gazeta said a thorough investigation would be welcome. "The investigation will soon be prolonged--approximately until next February, but the case is not anywhere near being passed to the courts. And we are grateful for that," Novaya Gazeta said. "Many months were lost because of the rushing of the case to court. At the time, politics and internal fighting among law enforcement structures apparently won over experience and professionalism. We--the colleagues of Anna Politkovskaya--are interested only in a thorough investigation and a solid prosecution. We have nowhere to rush."

CPJ traveled to Moscow in late September for a follow-up meeting with the Investigative Committee. A year ago, meeting for the first time with Investigative Committee officials, a CPJ delegation presented a report that detailed systemic law enforcement failures in a string of journalist murders in Russia since 2000. The report, Anatomy of Injustice, was based on interviews with dozens of sources and the review of hundreds of pages of documents and news accounts. CPJ also submitted recommendations for restarting the stalled investigations. 

This year, on September 30, following its meeting with CPJ, the Investigative Committee publicly stated it would reopen five cases on CPJ's list that had been suspended or closed.

"We commend the decision to reinvestigate these cases," Ognianova said. "But success can only be measured by concrete results. While Anna's killers--and the killers of 18 other colleagues--are at large, we cannot rest or be satisfied."

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