A Russian Reporter's Murder: Will a Retrial Bring Justice?

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Alexey Sazonov / AFP / Getty

The four suspects in the murder case of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (L to R) Dzhabrail Makhmudov, Ibragim Makhmudov, Pavel Ryaguzov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov inside the defendants' cage of a Moscow court.

When the trial of four men accused of being involved in the 2006 murder of Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya ended in acquittal in February, many, including Politkovskaya's family, were relieved. It meant the investigation into the crusading journalist's shooting would continue and, they hoped, would finally catch the real culprits: the person who ordered the assassination and the person who pulled the trigger. But on Thursday, Russia's Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and ordered a retrial, sparking fears that a guilty verdict the second time around will end the search for Politkovskaya's killers.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said there were numerous procedural violations in the previous trial, and an improper bias against the defendants, which necessitated a retrial on the same charges in the same court. (By citing procedural violations, the Supreme Court renders the first verdict void, and so sidesteps the issue of double jeopardy which states a person can't be tried for the same crime twice.) Politkovskaya's family and lawyers oppose a retrial, saying a guilty verdict for the alleged accomplices could end the investigation and allow those directly responsible for the murder to remain free. Meanwhile, journalists and human rights advocates can't help but note that the announcement comes little more than a week before U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Russia.

"There is no basis for the verdict to be overturned," Anna Stavitskaya, the lawyer for Politkovskaya's son and daughter, told the judges, according to Russian media. "We are more interested in the mastermind and the killer," said Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which Politkovskaya worked, speaking to Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station. "It's obvious that today's ruling was based on a political decision — not on a procedural one. For the authorities, the most important thing was simply to make sure someone goes to prison."

Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses during Russia's war in Chechnya and was a fierce critic of then-President Vladimir Putin, was shot in the head and killed in her apartment building in central Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006. During the four-month trial which ended in acquittals in February, Ibragim Makhmudov was accused of acting as a lookout and calling his brothers to tell them that the journalist was on her way home, while his brother Dzhabrail Makhmudov allegedly drove the shooter, believed to be the third brother, Rustam Makhmudov, who remains at large. The third defendant, former police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, allegedly recruited the Makhmudov brothers and supplied the pistol, and Sergei Ryaguzov, a former Federal Security Service officer, was accused of extortion in a case unrelated to the murder.

Many observers see an ulterior motive behind the Supreme Court's call for a retrial, which may start in the fall. "This decision sounds okay — as though the 'good' Supreme Court has corrected problems and justice has triumphed," said Yulia Latynina, an investigative journalist, during the political talk show she hosts on Ekho Moskvy. "In Russia, everything is rigged: the police, the prosecution and the courts. This is just P.R. to create the impression that there is a legal process taking place."

But with a summit between Obama and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev scheduled for July 6-8, others posit that perhaps the retrial is a real quest for justice, however misguided. "There may be recognition in the government that the failure to hold someone to account for the murder of Politkovskaya is a glaring omission — and there should be accountability for such crimes, but within the bounds of fair trial protections," Allison Gill, director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, tells TIME. "It might be that the Kremlin wants to show that they want to get the job done."

Gill emphasizes that the decision may have been a cynical move, one not indicative of the broader "Medvedev Spring" — a trend towards liberalization that some in the media have been noting since Medvedev took office in May 2008. "I think it's too early to judge to what extent there is a thaw," she says. "But I do think there is an awareness that on some of these really high-profile cases there was a brazenness during the Putin years that was just intolerable." The public's mistrust of Russia's legal system was reinforced earlier this week when the Council of Europe released a draft report saying that shortcomings in the country's justice system "are reason for concern" and that some cases "give rise to concerns that the fight against 'legal nihilism' launched by President Dmitri Medvedev [in his inauguration speech] is still far from won."

According to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russia is the third most dangerous country to work in for journalists, with 50 killed since 1992. Most recently, in January Anastasiya Baburova, another Novaya Gazeta journalist, was shot and killed alongside human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in broad daylight in central Moscow. "President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have pledged to enforce the rule of law by investigating crimes against the press. Nonetheless, attacks on journalists continue to occur with impunity," wrote CPJ director Joel Simon in a letter to President Obama ahead of his trip to Moscow. "This record of impunity is a matter of international importance. Deadly violence against journalists has led to vast self-censorship, leaving issues of global significance underreported or entirely uncovered ... When Russia does not uphold press freedom and human rights for its own people, it undermines them for all."

On the surface of it, the Supreme Court's call for a retrial in the case of Politkovskaya's murder seems to signal that Russia is finally tackling its culture of impunity. But clouded by murky motivations and the possibility that it could leave the real culprits running free, it may actually be doing just the opposite.