A jury acquitted three men on Thursday of playing minor roles in the murder of an investigative journalist whose killing underlined the risks that Kremlin critics can face in Russia. The main suspects in the case remained at large.
The unanimous not-guilty verdicts ended a three-month trial regarding the killing of acclaimed journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose probing reports on atrocities in Chechnya and abuses by Russian authorities angered the government.
The trial was marred from the start by the absence of the suspected gunman and any alleged mastermind behind the politically charged October 2006 killing.
Prosecutors vowed to appeal.
The judge said the defendants were free to go, and they burst out of a courtroom cage and embraced elated relatives.
Ethnic Chechen brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov and a former Moscow police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, were accused of helping organize and arrange Politkovskaya's contract-style killing. All three were charged with murder and could have been imprisoned for life if convicted.
Politkovskaya's investigative reports won her international acclaim. Her shooting shocked the world and widened the rift between Moscow and the West, underscoring the risks run by independent journalists and government critics, while hardening the Kremlin's depiction of Russia as a nation beset by foes.
The forewoman of the 12-member jury read out the verdicts after about two hours of deliberations at a military courthouse on Moscow's main pedestrian souvenir-shopping street, the Old Arbat. When the judge repeated that the defendants were acquitted, relatives of the Makhmudov brothers broke out into clapping and cries of "Bravo!"
"Thank God, thank the jury," said Dzhabrail Makhmudov, still in the courtroom cage shortly after the verdict. "There was no other possible outcome."
"We're glad," said defense lawyer Murad Musayev. "This is something that happens rarely in Russia. This is what I call justice."
But relatives and former colleagues of Politkovskaya have said that regardless of the verdict, justice will not be served until the triggerman and the mastermind who had her killed are prosecuted.
The defendants were accused of helping organize and arrange the attack, but the suspected gunman — a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam — is said to be hiding abroad. Chief investigator Petros Garibyan said last autumn that prosecutors were looking into four possible masterminds, but none has been identified.
"Everything is still ahead — the investigators now have to start a proper investigation," said Karinna Moskalenko, a prominent lawyer who represented Politkovskaya's family at the trial. "The more time goes by, the harder it gets."
Killed in elevator
Politkovskaya was shot in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006, as she returned from a supermarket with groceries.
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 a pistol with a silencer for the shooting.
The defendants' lawyers said the prosecutors came nowhere near proving their clients' guilt. In final arguments Tuesday, Musayev accused the prosecution of fabricating evidence and dismissed their case as "dust, fluff and ash."
Juries in Russia acquit defendants far more often than judges, who critics of Russia's justice system say are stuck in the Soviet tradition of presumed guilt and politically motivated show trials that also leaves prosecutors with little motivation to actually prove their case.
Prominent defense attorneys say that despite frequent manipulation of juries by state authorities, jury trials are the best chance for defendants to avoid being railroaded into prison.
Prosecutor Vera Pashkovskaya said the state intends to appeal. Jury acquittals can only be appealed on technical grounds, but she said the judge had committed numerous procedural violations.
Government critics dismissed the high-profile trial as a smoke screen to draw attention away from the state's failure to apprehend the suspected gunman and determine who was behind the killing of a fearless journalist who made plenty of potential enemies among Russian authorities.
Putin said it was plot against Russia
Facing Western suspicions of possible government involvement, then-President Vladimir Putin and his chief prosecutor framed Politkovskaya's killing as a plot to discredit Russia and its leadership, suggesting the investigation would lead to a mastermind abroad. The chief prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, suggested that prominent Putin critic Boris Berezovsky, who lives in Britain, could have been behind it.
But the editor of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, predicted in 2007 that the probe would point in the opposite direction, revealing deep-seated corruption in the security and law enforcement agencies that have gained prominence with KGB veteran Putin, now prime minister, in charge. Musayev said during the trial that the indictment suggested a politician inside Russia had ordered Politkovskaya's killing as revenge for critical reporting.
And Khadzhikurbanov testified this month that he was offered a reduced sentence if he said either Berezovsky or Chechnya's president, Ramzan Kadyrov — a chief target of Politikovskaya's criticism — was the mastermind behind the killing, according to one of the defense lawyers, Said Arsanazayev. Both Berezovsky and Kadyrov have denied involvement.