Two arrested for murder of human rights lawyer and reporter, but Russian rights community sceptical justice will be served

frontpageingressimage_tikhonov.jpg Photo: rt.com

Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB in its Russian abbreviation and the successor organisation to the KBG, told Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that both suspects – a man and a women – were in their 20s and that one had already confessed to pulling the trigger, RIA Novosti reported.  

"A decision was made to arrest the suspects on November 3rd,” Bortnikov told Medvedev, according to RIA Novosti.  

“We have received incriminating materials concerning those people who participated in the crime – first hand evidence, as well as concrete information in the form of a confession by a suspect," Bortnikov told the president,” said Bortnikov.

Yevgeny Skripelov, lawyer for 29-year-old Nikita Tikhonov, the man detained for the murders, confirmed that his client has confessed to pulling the trigger.

“Nikita Tikhonov has confessed to the murder,” said Skripelov in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio.

The other suspect is named Yevgeniya Khasis and is 24, according to information released by the FSB.

The suspects appeared in court to be charged on Thursday, and both wore black hoods that covered their faces while the charges were read.  

The Markelov and Baburova murders, and numerous others like them, have cast a lasting pall over Russia’s dwindling human rights circle, and Medvedev was quick to congratulate investigators and said he was pleased the case had been solved in such a short time — around 10 months after the shootings — and hoped that “such reports will come regularly.”

Since the shootings Medvedev has attempted to prop up the image of the Kremlin as a protector of human rights and freedom of speech, having re-established the mothballed presidential rights council, which liaises the executive branch with human rights organisations. Members of this organisation have told Bellona Web in interviews that little has occurred to revive the council that was shoved into the shadows under former President Vladimir Putin.

In another gesture that puzzled rights watchers, some 10 days after the killings of Markelov and Baburova, Medvedev called on Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov personally to convey condolences.  Markelov was a frequent contributor to the newspaper.

Members of Russian Human Rights organisations, however, are not so quick to jump on the bandwagon of enthusiasm Medvedev has expressed over Tikhonov and Khasis’s arrests, or his attempts to cozy up to opposition groups and media in general. A growing list of journalists and political activists have been killed in recent years, but few of those cases have ended in prosecution.

The most notable of these have been the shootings of the journalists Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote for Novaya Gazeta, and Paul Klebnikov, a Russian American who edited Russia’s edition of Forbes. In both cases, investigators or  have identified only low-level criminals or have seen the cases fall apart in the courtroom.

“Until the case is closed, it’s not closed,” said Aleksandr Cherkasov of the rights organization Memorial, speaking of the trumpeting of the arrests I the Markelov and Baburova killings. Cherkasov was a close friend of Markelov’s.

“Will it be a jury trial? Will the prosecutors be able to prove their case? How much opportunity will there be to manipulate the jury, or influence the jury? So this is not finished,” he told the New York Times.

“I have no feeling of relief,” he added, “because none of this will resurrect a person.”

Reports in the New York Times heavy played on Tikhonov and Khasis’s alleged associations with Russian nationalists groups. But Skripelov, Tikhonov’s lawyer, told Ekho Moskvy that his client had denied in his confession that he had any association with nationalist or neo-Nazi organisations.

Reports from Russia’s Interfax newswire indicated earlier in the day yesterday, with reference to an anonymous source in law enforcement, that both Tikhonov and Khasis may have had ties to a nationalist group called “Russky Obraz.”

The home of the leader of “Russky Obraz,” Ilya Goryuchev’s, had been searched and Goryuchev brought  in for questoning, said the Interfax source, but the Interfax source said the search and detention had had nothing to do with the Tikhonov and Khasis arrests.

Other news organisations, both Russian and Western mention the nationalist associations only briefly or ignore them altogether.

At the time Markelov was shot, he had just delivered a news conference where he heavily protested the early release from a 10-year-sentence of Yury Budanov a Russian military tank commander who served in Chechnya, and, while there, strangled and killed an 18-year-old Chechen woman named Elsa Kungayeva.

The case, upon Budanov’s conviction in 2004, had been a benchmark trial for the Russian government, which finally appeared to be coming to grips with the violence inflicted on Chechen civilians during the two military campaigns the Kremlin has led there. Conversely, Budanov’s release was cause for celebration among Russian nationalist groups, whose most common targets of violence are people from the Caucasus region.

Novaya Gazeta’s Baburova had been interviewing Markelov until he was shot point blank. In her attempts to stop the gunman, she too was shot and died later in hospital.

Many fear that any case against the alleged murderers of Markelov and Baburova will go the way of the murder trial of those suspected of having a hand in killing Politkovskaya, who was a good friend of Markelov.

In that recent trial, which was in front of a jury, a group of alleged conspirators in Politkovskaya’s murder were found innocent because the jury and judge said that the prosecution had submitted a slap-dash case for trial.

Though jury trials are written into the Russian Constitution, they are exceedingly rare, and prosecutors in Russia – where the conviction rate is above 90 percent – are not used to presenting thoroughly investigated cases. The judge demanded prosecutors in the Politkovskaya case head back to the drawing board and called for a retrial.

The recent laundry list of murders or attacks visited on rights workers and journalists in Russia is long. Most recently, the abduction and murder of Memorial and Human Rights Watch activist Nataliya Estemirova in July ratcheted up both the domestic and international ire.

Estemirova lived in the Chechen capital of Grozny, where witnesses say she was shoved into a van while leaving for work. Her cries for help went ignored. Her body was found later that day riddled with bullets in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Memorial said her murder had been connected with her documentation of atrocities in Cheechnya.

In April, Lev Ponomaryov, 67, leader of the organization For Human Rights and a founding member of Memorial was beaten outside his home.

In February, 72-year-old opposition newspaper editor Yury Grachev was beaten in the Moscow suburb of Solnechonogorsk by unknown assailants. Police investigating the case dismissed the attack on the editor of the investigative newspaper that exposed numerous acts of official corruption as self-inflicted injuries.

In December, at least one unidentified assailant shot in the head and wounded Shafig Amrakhov, 51, editor of the Murmansk-based online regional news agency RIA. He died after a week in the hospital. Earlier the same month, two unidentified assailants attacked and beat Zhanna Akbasheva, a local correspondent for the independent news agency Regnum, in the North Caucasus Republic  of Karachai-Cherkessiya.

In November 2008 Mikhail Beketov, editor of the authority-rankling Khimskaya Pravda newspaper, was beaten nearly to death in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. His paper wrote exposés on corruption and campaigned on environmental issues.

Beketov’s supporters say he made enemies by campaigning against a plan to build a toll highway between Moscow and St Petersburg through a forest on the outskirts of Khimki.

These crimes remain unsolved.

Charles Digges