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Closed trial in Politkovskaya case dashes hopes

People holding portraits of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on October 7, the 6th anniversary of her murder, call on authorities to punish the killers of journalists in Russia. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The trial of Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, a former police lieutenant colonel and a key suspect in the 2006 murder of prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, started at Moscow City Court today under presiding Judge Aleksandr Zamashnyuk. 

When Pavlyuchenkov was first charged, there was hope investigators were making real progress. However, Politkovskaya's family and colleagues say a deal between the suspect and investigators at the heart of the trial has not been fulfilled and should be invalidated. The judge today declined their request and declared all substantive proceedings in the trial secret, saying journalists will be allowed only at the reading of Pavlyuchenkov's verdict, scheduled for Friday. Such a quick, closed trial leaves little hope of full justice being achieved for the prominent Novaya Gazeta journalist.

Tuesday, on the eve of the trial, Politkovskaya's adult son, Ilya, and his legal representative Anna Stavitskaya, along with Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov and his deputy, Sergey Sokolov, held a press conference at the offices of the independent news agency Interfax in Moscow, where they called into question the deal Pavlyuchenkov had made with the official investigators. According to conditions of the deal, Pavlyuchenkov was obligated to fully confess his role in the murder and name its mastermind, Novaya Gazeta said. The journalist's family and colleagues, who have studied the materials of the official investigation, say Pavlyuchenkov did not fulfill those conditions.

"The period of our active cooperation with the official investigation has ended; the time for asking tough questions has come," Sokolov said.

Politkovskaya's colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, who have been carrying out their own journalistic investigation into her murder, believe that Pavlyuchenkov is the key organizer of the crime, directly receiving instructions from the mastermind, who is yet to be publicly named. However, the official charges against Pavlyuchenkov have been downgraded from being the main organizer to being a mere accomplice in the crime. Pavlyuchenkov has confessed to those charges.

"Without doubting Pavlyuchenkov's testimony about the participation of additional members of a criminal group in the murder--this is confirmed by evidence--we are convinced that Pavlyuchenkov, in his hopes to avoid a heavy verdict, has tried to play down his role in the crime," Politkovskaya's adult children, Ilya and Vera, said in a statement issued on the sixth anniversary of their mother's murder, on October 7. Pavlyuchenkov, the statement also said, has tried to "offer the investigation a politically motivated, unconfirmed by evidence, version of who the mastermind of the crime is."

Pavlyuchenkov has named the alleged masterminds of Politkovskaya's murder to be Russian exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, along with exiled Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev. However, it is well known that the first mention of Berezovsky came when President Vladimir Putin, shortly after Politkovskaya's murder, publicly accused him of masterminding the crime. Since then, both the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office and the Investigative Committee have been trying to prove Berezovsky's involvement in the slaying, according to news reports and sources close to the investigation. The legal representatives of Politkovskaya's adult children say they consider the Berezovsky-Zakayev version to be devoid of evidence.

"We are getting the impression that law enforcement is unwilling to get to the bottom of the crime chain, because, apparently, the mastermind is an influential person in the Russian power hierarchy," Sokolov, who also heads the newspaper's department of investigations, said.

At the time of the murder, Pavlyuchenkov was head of Fourth Division of the Surveillance Department at Moscow's Main Internal Affairs Directorate, the city's main police force, and in this capacity, he ordered surveillance of the journalist to ascertain her whereabouts and usual routes. The Fourth Division carries out surveillance and phone-tapping of suspected criminals. According to Russian law, such operations are to be carried out only after they are sanctioned by a court; the surveillance on Politkovskaya was not.

"It became clear that Pavlyuchenkov, with the participation of his subordinates, made illegal surveillance into a business," Sokolov told CPJ.

According to his testimony, Pavlyuchenkov received orders to carry out surveillance on Politkovskaya from an acquaintance, Chechen crime boss Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, whom Pavlyuchenkov allegedly feared. Such a version was confirmed by the head of Politkovskaya's murder investigation, Petros Garibyan. "Pavlyuchenkov of course knew that he was being set up by an established criminal," Garibyan told the business daily Kommersant in a November 9 interview. However, Garibyan said, Pavlyuchenkov feared disobeying Gaitukayev. Gaitukayev, who has been charged with organizing the murder, is serving a prison term in connection to another crime.

Politkovskaya's colleagues disagree with the official probe's conclusions on Pavlyuchenkov. They believe that the former police colonel is a key organizer of the murder, who arranged and carried out the surveillance of the journalist; found and solicited the participation of the three Chechen brothers, the Makhmudovs, (who are to be tried separately for their purported involvement in the killing; they deny the charges); and procured and handed the killers the murder weapon. Not only that, Politkovskaya's colleagues believe, but Pavlyuchenkov interacted directly with the mastermind of the murder, receiving both the order and payment for the crime, and is able to reveal the truth about who sent the killers to the journalist's doorstep.

According to the materials of the investigation, Politkovskaya was placed under surveillance in two periods--in the summer and in the fall of 2006. The first surveillance period involved a narrow circle of persons, who were paid a daily "wage" of US$150. This, however, proved ineffective, because Politkovskaya had traveled abroad.

The second period of surveillance started several weeks before the killing. Here is an excerpt from the official interrogation of one of Pavlyuchenkov's subordinates: "The surveillance on her [Politkovskaya] was being carried out by our division [the Fourth Division] in two shifts: the first one from 8 am to 2 p.m., the second one - from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each shift included no less than two transportation units, and at least six operatives. Since the surveillance of the given subject [Politkovskaya] was carried out in two shifts, and by a considerable number of operatives, I concluded that we were working on an official assignment. ..."

In addition, Stavitskaya, the family's lawyer, said at Tuesday's press conference that Pavlyuchenkov's subordinates carried out surveillance of Politkovskaya's suspected immediate killers (allegedly the Makhmudov brothers) until immediately before the murder "in order to help them carry out the killing." Stavitskaya based her conclusions on the materials of the investigation that she and her clients have studied.

Despite all this, no one other than Pavlyuchenkov from the Fourth Division of the Surveillance Department at Moscow's Main Internal Affairs Directorate has been indicted with involvement in the journalist's killing. They are considered "witnesses in the case." As for Pavlyuchenkov's bosses, those have not even received administrative punishment.

Could Pavlyuchenkov have organized such a massive surveillance operation without the knowledge of his bosses? "This is a question that arose while we were familiarizing ourselves with the materials of the official investigation," one of the Politkovskaya family lawyers told CPJ. "Yet, the investigative team never asked it of Pavlyuchenkov."

Investigators have not responded publicly to the allegations raised by Politkovskaya's family, their lawyers, and colleagues.

The prosecution has asked that Pavlyuchenkov serve 12 years in a general-regimen prison colony if found guilty. As a rule, defendants found guilty of a commissioned crime receive up to 18 years in prison in a maximum-security prison.

With Pavlyuchenkov's blitz trial being sealed to the public, the truth about the real masterminds of Politkovskaya's murder may be buried for good. The press is unable to monitor the trial and help expose any flaws in the proceedings. Such a process is opaque and bound to sabotage the pursuit of true justice for our colleague.

[Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova]

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