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Politkovskaya murder trial off to poor start

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Vera (left) and Ilya Politkovsky attend a pre-trial court hearing in June. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

The retrial of several suspects in the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya has started on the wrong foot, according to the family and former colleagues of the late journalist.

Proceedings began on July 24 at the Moscow City Court, one day after a jury was selected to hear the case. But the jury selection took place without the participation of Politkovskaya's two adult children, Vera and Ilya, who have been seeking justice for their slain mother for the past seven years. Disappointed, Vera and Ilya Politkovsky have declared the process illegitimate and have refused to take part in it.

In the dock are three ethnic Chechen brothers--Dzhabrail, Ibragim, and Rustam Makhmudov--whom authorities accuse of executing the murder. Investigators allege that Rustam Makhmudov was the gunman, while Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov were his accomplices. Other suspects being tried in the case are Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, the Makhmudov brothers' uncle, whom authorities say received the order to kill the journalist from an unidentified mastermind and organized the hit; and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and a suspected accomplice in the murder. The latter two men are already serving jail terms on unrelated charges. Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov were tried and acquitted in Politkovskaya's murder before, after a 2009 jury trial found the prosecution's evidence against them flawed and insufficient; and so was Khadzhikurbanov, who was tried as an organizer of the murder.

All five defendants in this new trial have denied the current charges against them and pleaded not guilty, according to news reports.

For the past seven years Politkovskaya's children, along with her former colleagues at the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, have been cooperating with authorities and anxiously waiting for the court to bring to justice everyone culpable in the journalist's murder. Their hopes, however, seem to have been dashed. According to CPJ interviews and news reports, the slain journalist's family and colleagues say the trial has been marred by violations, and accuse both investigators and the court of rushing the process. They also question what's at stake--serving justice for Politkovskaya or simply tagging the case as solved before another anniversary of her death passes.

In a statement published July 23 by Novaya Gazeta, Vera and Ilya Politkovsky accused presiding Judge Pavel Melekhin of the Moscow City Court of disregarding their rights as victims when he ignored their request to participate in the jury selection. Although Russian law does not obligate courts to involve the victim's family in that process, their legal rights are equal to those of the prosecution. Not only did Judge Melekhin conduct the procedure without them, but he did so in the absence of both their legal representative Anna Stavitskaya and of the lead lawyer for the defense, Murad Musayev. In response to Judge Melekhin's disregard for what is a standard procedure, both Politkovskaya's family and the defense urged the judge to step down, Stavitskaya told CPJ. He refused, and the trial proceeds--under boycott by Vera and Ilya Politkovsky.

"We did not participate in the jury selection process; we were denied the right to make necessary motions; we were simply deleted from the list of interested persons [in the trial]," Vera and Ilya Politkovsky said in their statement. "We, the victim side, are refusing to participate in this process. And we urge the jurors to do the same: Dear ladies and gentlemen, you are being made part of an ignominious process; one where you will not be able to perform your civil duty. We urge you to declare self-disqualification [from the trial]. We refuse to come to the court, refuse to give testimony, and refuse to accept as legitimate any actions Judge Melekhin performs within this case."

Stavitskaya told CPJ: "My clients are outraged by the start of the trial into their mother's murder. We have been waiting for it for a long time, prepared for it, actively participated in the investigation."

Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's chief editor, told CPJ: "All of us--Ilya and Vera Politkovsky, the friends and colleagues of Anna, have been waiting for this trial for seven years. Authorities refused to wait for three days [so that the family could take part in the jury selection process]. It is obvious that the court is tasked to handle this high-profile case in a speedy rather than a quality manner."

Despite the fact that, in theory, Russia's criminal justice system prioritizes the victims' rights and legal interests (as prescribed by Article 6 of the Code of Criminal Procedure), Politkovskaya's family have had their rights repeatedly violated. Russia's top federal agencies, from the Investigative Committee to the General Prosecutor's Office, as well as the courts, have denied past pleas filed by Ilya and Vera Politkovsky. Prior to the current trial, the journalist's family requested that federal agencies annul a plea deal made by another suspect in the case, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, who has since been convicted and sentenced to 11 years in jail for involvement in the killing. The family believes that investigators failed to uncover the actual role that Pavlyuchenkov, a former police colonel, played in the murder, and they demanded his retrial. Authorities refused.

Defense lawyer Musayev has a similar opinion regarding investigators' failure regarding Pavlyuchenkov. In a July 24 blog for the website of the popular Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, he wrote: "Pavlyuchenkov was convicted in a speedy trial, without judicial investigation, and his role in Politkovskaya's murder was noticeably diminished. Those who followed Politkovskaya and killed her continue to remain in the status of witnesses in the criminal case, or are unidentified."

Sergey Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta's deputy editor, who heads the newspaper's independent investigation into Politkovskaya's murder, said he believes that Pavlyuchenkov knows the name of the mastermind but authorities have not pressed him to reveal it.

All of these irregularities cast doubt on the fairness of the process and on the legitimacy of authorities' efforts to bring justice in the benchmark case. Obtaining long overdue justice in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya would give much- needed hope to the relatives, friends, and colleagues of the 20 other journalists murdered with impunity under the current Russian administration, whose cases rarely make domestic and international headlines.

[Translated from Russian by Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia research associate]

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