Vladimir Putin has often seemed indifferent to violence against the press, but Steve LeVine believes there is one case the Russian leader genuinely wanted solved—the 2004 assassination of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov.
That no convictions have been won in the slaying reflects an embedded culture of impunity rather than a lack of political will, says LeVine, who explored the Klebnikov case and several other high-profile murders in his 2008 book, Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia.
“The atmosphere of impunity that Putin has unleashed in his reign is larger than he is. This [case] is proof of that,” says LeVine, a foreign affairs reporter for BusinessWeek. Unlike victims in the other cases LeVine examined, Klebnikov was never considered an opponent of the Kremlin. An American of Russian descent, Klebnikov was a tough investigator but was well-known for his optimistic view of Russian society. Putin, then president, pledged to solve the crime.
The Kremlin’s political will did translate into an initial investigation that, by most accounts, was vigorous and swift. Police made two arrests within months, and prosecutors presented substantial evidence to a jury when the trial began in early 2006. But the case was derailed by a series of questionable court decisions that tainted the conduct of the trial and its aftermath.
Now, four years after the slaying, no one is charged, no one is in custody, and no progress is being reported in the case. “It seems to have drifted into the ether,” said the editor’s brother, Peter Klebnikov.
Authorities identified Kazbek Dukuzov, a purported Chechen criminal gang member, as the man who shot Klebnikov nine times from a passing car on a Moscow street late on the evening of July 9, 2004. Dukuzov was arrested along with Musa Vakhayev, the alleged driver and fellow gang member. Prosecutors claimed Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev ordered the murder in retaliation for Klebnikov’s depiction of him in the 2003 book, Conversation With a Barbarian. Nukhayev was never arrested and his whereabouts remain unclear.
Moscow City Court Judge Vladimir Usov closed the trial to the public at the request of the prosecution, which said classified information would be presented. Evidence against the two suspects was circumstantial but strong, according to CPJ sources and journalists who followed the case. In Forbes, reporter Richard Behar wrote that investigators had gathered cell phone records indicating the defendants were watching Klebnikov for two weeks before the murder. Through a witness, they had identified the vehicle from which the fatal shots were fired and then found Vakhayev’s fingerprints in the car. Prosecutors also elicited testimony from an acquaintance of the defendants who recalled them talking about being paid well for a “big job.”
“The evidence was as solid circumstantially as any case that a Western prosecutor would feel confident bringing to a jury,” Behar said in an interview with CPJ. Behar also heads Project Klebnikov, an alliance of journalists working to help solve the killing.
But several sources told CPJ that the jury was left open to intimidation during the trial. The defendants and their representatives made a number of threatening statements in the presence of jurors, who were not sequestered and could be readily approached entering or exiting the courtroom, these sources said. At the same time, Judge Usov imposed a gag order on all of the trial participants, including the jurors.
As the jury returned its verdict in May 2006, more questions arose. Usov left the courtroom three times after receiving—but before announcing—the jury’s decision. In each instance the jurors followed him outside the courtroom—beyond even the limited scrutiny of the closed-door proceedings.
The verdict: Acquittals for both defendants. Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin said publicly that “serious violations” of court procedures had led to the verdicts. The prosecution, joined by the Klebnikov family, appealed the verdict to Russia’s Supreme Court. In November 2006, the high court overturned the acquittals and ordered a new trial before a new judge.
But Dukuzov, free following his acquittal, had vanished by then. Moscow City Court officials postponed the retrial and then moved the case off the docket entirely in 2007, sending it back to the prosecutor general’s office for further investigation. The court never disclosed who made this pivotal decision, which effectively sent the case back to step one.
The prosecution appealed again, but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court—a ruling that has perplexed the Klebnikov family and others. “We’ve been told by our attorney that the transfer of the case is not according to law,” Peter Klebnikov said. The Supreme Court has not disclosed its reasoning.
“Legal experts say there is no basis in Russian law for the court’s decision,” said Behar, who called the development a major setback. “I’m a long-term optimist, but this is not an optimistic season.”
Has the prosecutor general’s office truly renewed a vigorous investigation? It’s hard to tell. The Klebnikov family sent a letter this summer to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin in May. Officials assured the family that the case is being pursued in earnest with high-level supervision, but they acknowledged there was no concrete progress. “Unfortunately,” Peter Klebnikov said, “the questionable decisions and lack of progress that have been a pattern over the last four years continue to be the norm.”
Petros Garibyan, a senior investigator with the prosecutor general, said in written comments to CPJ that Dukuzov and Vakhayev remain the primary suspects. He said Dukuzov is in hiding, but authorities have obtained an international arrest warrant for him. Vakhayev lives openly in Russia, the investigator said.
Throughout Russia, the conviction record in journalist slayings is not encouraging. In 15 murders since 2000, CPJ research shows, prosecutors have obtained convictions in only one case. Locating Dukuzov would be a first step toward conviction number two.
Elisabeth Witchel is coordinator of CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity. This story is part of “Justice Project,” a Dangerous Assignments series focusing on unsolved journalist slayings, governmental responses, and continuing efforts to seek justice.