Medvedev deplores innocent verdict in Politkovskaya murder case, but human rights community still cool on president’s efforts

Publish date: February 24, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Wednesday slammed prosecutors for poor work with juries after they failed to convict four men accused of organizing the murder of crusading Kremlin critic and journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The comments from the Russian president are the latest in a series of remarks and actions that seem poised to bring him into closer accord with Kremlin opposition press and human rights organisations that have long been spurned by the government of former President Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s prime minister.

But Medvedev’s attempts at bonhomie with the Russia’s civil rights sector and human rights community are being met with skepticism in civil liberties circles, and one member of a recently restored presidential human rights council told Bellona web that he questions the motives of the Russian president, and indicated that the current warming trend could be dashed as quickly as it started.

In a meeting with senior prosecutors on the Politkovskaya case, Medvedev said, “Prosecutors and law-enforcement officers who conduct preliminary investigations should learn to work with the existence of the institution of the jury."

In the televised remarks, he added, "It is time to learn to do this, and not discuss how good it was back when this institution did not exist."

Prosecutor defends his staff
Medvedev’s comments came a week after a jury acquitted four men who were suspected of involvement in the murder of Politkovskaya after a high-profile trial that shed little light on the crime.

Russia’s top prosecutor defended his staff despite international criticism of their failure to convict the four defendants or identify the mastermind of the apparent contract killing.

"There is no reason to replace them, they acted in a principled and highly professional way," Prosecutor General Yury Chaika was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency, responding to a question about the Politkovskaya case.

The murder
Politkovskaya was shot dead with two bullets from a Makarov pistol in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7th 2006, as she returned from a supermarket with groceries.

Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin who exposed human rights abuses in the war-torn region of Chechnya, was at the time of her murder  completing a story for the stridently independent Novaya Gazeta on death squads allegedly run by Kremlin-appointed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

The story, which was published posthumously, ran with several still shots from videos, purportedly recorded by Chechen security services, of beatings and killings of young Chechen men.

The acquittal of Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov and a former Moscow police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov last week was a major embarrassment for the Russian prosecutor’s office, which is widely seen as having failed to produce incontrovertible evidence that would have convinced the 12-member jury after two year’s worth of investigations.

Judge orders a new investigation
Prosecutors were ordered by Judge Yevgeny Zubov to resume their probe into the case after the not-guilty verdict was read.

"The criminal probe must return to the prosecutors’ investigative committee with the aim of finding the individuals linked to the committing of this crime," Zubov was quoted as saying.

The defendants were accused of helping organize and arrange the fatal attack on Politkovskaya. But the suspected gunman — a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam — is said to be hiding abroad, and prosecutors have not named anyone believed to have ordered her killing.

Dzhabrail Makhmudov was accused of driving his brother Rustam to the building. Prosecutors say Ibragim Makhmudov warned of Politkovskaya’s impending arrival with a telephone call to Dzhabrail. Khadzhikurbanov allegedly planned details of the attack, recruited the Makhmudov brothers and acquired the Makarov pistol and with a silencer for the shooting.

Video tapes from the lobby of Politkovskaya’s building showed one man dressed in black, with a black baseball cap pulled down low to obscure his face pulling the trigger.

"Everything is still ahead — the investigators now have to start a proper investigation," said Karina Moskalenko, a prominent lawyer who represented Politkovskaya’s family at the trial. "The more time goes by, the harder it gets."

Jury trials in Russia still flawed and infrequent
Juries were introduced in Russia in the post-Soviet era and tend to acquit suspects at a much higher rate than judges. Yet judicial watch organisations still say Russia is slow in adopting the process, and only a handful of cases actually ever see a jury – and when juries are left to make decisions, they are made based on shoddy cases submitted by prosecutors.

Medvedev’s embrace of civil society still puzzling
Medvedev’s aims in drawing nearer to the human rights community and opposition press still remain puzzling. When Novaya Gazeta reporter Anistasiya Baburova was gunned down last month, Medvedev delivered his condolences to the paper’s editor personall.

By contrast, when Politkovskaya was murdered, then President Putin  – Medvedev’s mentor who all but handed him the presidency – coldly dismissed Poltikovskaya as “insignificant” in an interview with German media.

Also restored earlier this month was the 36-member presidential council on human rights, a liaison group between the Kremlin and civil society groups in Russia that Putin has let lay fallow upon leaving office.

Presidential human rights council member sceptical

One member of this newly restored council, prominent human rights activist and head of St. Petersburg Citizens’ Watch rights watchdog, Boris Pustyntsev, confirmed there was an element of double speak in Medvedev cozying up to the human rights community.

“Medvedev apparently doesn’t wish to conclusively part with his liberal image, so the Council was restored and makes regular hopeful announcements,” said Pustyntsev in an email interview with Bellona Web.

“So far (…) he and Putin are as before one team. We have long grown used to this team saying one thing and doing another,” said Pustyntsev, who is also a board member of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, Bellona’s St.Petersburg office. 

But Pustyntsev was quick to point out that some good could come of the circumstances Medvedev is apparently opening up. “Medvedev, after all is not a professional KGB company man” like Putin, said Pustyntsev.

“The conditions for his own preferences in foreign and domestic policy to arise that are separate from the Putin teams exists, he said.

“But we don’t know the most important aspect: to what degree these two men (Putin and Medvedev) are business partners. If it is a serious partnership, then all remaining considerations are on the back burner, and they will continue to work as one team despite specific disagreements,” said Pustyntsev.

“If Medvedev has not managed to financially tie himself to the Kremlin cart, then he could, in principle, become a free agent,“ he said.