06/01/2011, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Politkovskaya’s killer arrested but could prove just a scapegoat

by Nina Achmatova
According to the slain journalist’s lawyer, Rustam Makhmudov could be tried and convicted but this could underpine the investigation into the murder’s instigators, who are still at large.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Yesterday’s arrest of a Chechen man, Rustam Makhmudov, on suspicion of murdering investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 is not good news for those who want to shed light on one of the most internationally embarrassing affairs for the Kremlin, this according to attorney Anna Statvitskaya, who represents the Politkovskaya family and Anja’s two children (Anja is Anna Politkovskaya’s nickname to colleagues and friends). Speaking to AsiaNews, she said that she has serious concerns about the 37-year-old suspect who was arrested after four years on the run. “He could be tried and even convicted, but the danger is that he will simply be a scapegoat. With an offender behind bars, the investigation into those who commissioned the murder could be stopped and Anna’s death could end up as one of Russia’s many unsolved cases.”

Anja’s son Ilya shares Statvitskaya’s suspicions; so does Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta. The slain journalist wrote for the biweekly focusing on political affairs, Chechnya, human rights and corruption, something that earned her the hatred of a number of people. Whoever shot her “is the smallest fish”,  Ilya Politkovsky said; “someone who probably didn’t know who she was,” he told Interfax news agency.

Sokolov has also doubts about the arrest but is less pessimistic. “To hope that Makhmudov could point the finger at those who commissioned Anja’s death is ridiculous,” he told gazeta.ru. “In cases of political murder in Russia, the culprits are usually not found or convicted. However, his arrest could bring us closer to those behind the assassination.”

“The fact that an international fugitive like Makhmudov could easily move between Belgium and Russia all these years means that he had support in ‘high places’,” Sokolov added.

Five years of mysteries

Born in 1958, Politkovskaya had a close call with death when someone tried to poison her in September 2004 when she was preparing to travel to Beslan following the hostage-taking incident in a local school that ended in a bloodbath.

In the days that followed her death, the Kremlin, then under Putin, remained silent, fuelling rumours that the murder had been instigated by someone inside Russia’s corridors of power. For human rights defenders, the courageous reporter who had exposed the crimes committed by Russia’s Special Forces and Chechen government militias had become an enemy of Chechnya’s pro-Russian dictator, Ramzand Kadyrov who was still solidly running the Caucasian republic.

In the summer of 2007, 11 people were indicted, including a former Chechen official, Shamil Buraiev. In the fall, two Chechen drivers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, went on trial. They are the brothers of Politkovskaya’s alleged assassin, who was arrested yesterday. They were joined by two other men, both former agents, an officer from the Moscow Police Department, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, and Pavel Riaguzov, a former colonel in the Russian secret services. The four accused entered a plea of not guilty and in February 2009 were acquitted. In June, the Russian Supreme Court, overturned the acquittal, ordering a new joint trial for both those who executed the murder and for those who commissioned it.

A case in search for a solution a year from presidential elections.

Along with the Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky cases, the Politkovskaya affair is a source of constant international criticism for Russian authorities who are seen as unable or unwilling to seek justice.

Now, six months before the next parliamentary elections, and a year from the presidential poll in the spring of 2012, the Kremlin appears committed to solving delicate files that have raised suspicions among Russia’s foreign partners.

In fact, last month, a Moscow court convicted two Russian nationalists for the 2009 murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova.

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