- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

MOSCOW | A jury acquitted three men 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 suspected 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 Ms. Politkovskaya’s contract-style killing. All three were charged with murder and could have been imprisoned for life if convicted.

Ms. 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.

“We’re glad,” said defense attorney Murad Musayev. “This is something that happens rarely in Russia. This is what I call justice.”

But relatives and former colleagues of Ms. 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, and prosecutors have not named anyone believed to have ordered Ms. Politkovskaya’s killing.

Ms. Politkovskaya was shot while 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 Ms. Politkovskaya’s impending arrival with a telephone call to Dzhabrail. Mr. Khadzhikurbanov purportedly planned details of the attack, recruited the Makhmudov brothers and acquired a pistol with a silencer for the shooting.

The defendants’ attorneys said the prosecutors came nowhere near proving their clients’ guilt.

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