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Politkovskaya case: 2 trials, 1 court, many questions

About 10 reporters sit on one of two wooden benches in the back of Room No. 4 at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow. They're gathered for the trial of three defendants accused of playing a role in the October 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Anna Politkovskaya. Only they won't be attending that trial today. 

Today's hearing concerns Pavel Ryaguzov, aka "the fourth defendant," aka the former Federal Security Service lieutenant colonel who is on trial--but not the trial. He sits in the same courtroom cell alongside the three defendants in Politkovskaya's murder--even though he is not charged in the killing. Although his case concerns unrelated charges of extortion and abuse of office, it has been merged with the Politkovskaya trial because of his alleged association with one of the murder defendants: Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. ...Yes, it is confusing.

A sign designating the Moscow District Military Court.

Somehow the presence of Ryaguzov--and his FSB rank--is the reason this trial is being heard in a military rather than civilian court. It is Ryaguzov's alleged involvement that causes parts of the trial to be closed to the press--as was the case when he appeared as a witness in the part of the proceedings that involved the Politkovskaya murder. It's unclear to journalists (who were barred from watching the testimony) what questions Ryaguzov faced and what testimony he gave. Apart from his vaguely defined association with Khadzhikurbanov, not much is known about Ryaguzov's role in the murder. Prosecutors have provided little information on his suspected actions or how they relate to the Politkovskaya case.

The court spent today examining evidence in a six-year-old lawsuit filed by travel firm manager Eduard Ponikarov, who accused Ryaguzov and Khadzhikurbanov of extorting money from him. Ponikarov deserves his case to be heard, but merging it with a high-profile murder trial should be justified by a clear link--a link the prosecution has not yet offered.

In August 2007 Ryaguzov was detained and accused of conducting surveillance on Politkovskaya, but he was cleared of the accusation in the following months. The prosecution did not explain the basis for the allegation or the reason it was lifted.

Today, prosecutor Vera Pashkovskaya announced in court that she has completed her presentation of evidence against all of the defendants. Next week, the court will start hearing the defense case. Pashkovskaya's announcement was met with astonishment by the press corps, which expected a prosecution case that began in late November to last much longer.

Three men are on trial for direct involvement in Politkovskaya's assassination: Khadzhikurbanov and brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov. The prosecution has named Khadzhikurbanov the organizer of the crime and the two Makhmudov brothers as his accomplices. Neither the alleged triggerman, a third Makhmudov brother named Rustam, nor the masterminds of Politkovskaya's assassination are in custody. Rustam Makhmudov is wanted on an international warrant; the mastermind has not been named.

In the meantime, this strangely combined case goes forward in a military court.

(Reporting from Moscow

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