Saturday, May 13, 2006

The thugs who murdered American journalist Paul Klebnikov in Russia nearly two years ago are still at large. That much is certain after a Moscow jury recently exonerated two Chechens accused of his brutal July 2004 killing outside Forbes Russia’s Moscow offices. The continued freedom of Mr. Klebnikov’s murderers is a thumb in the eye of all Westerners.

For a sense of how poorly Russian justice served this high-profile case, consider that the trial of the two Chechens, Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev, was closed to the public for reasons few can fathom. Outsiders were forced to follow this case by secondhand account and penumbra. Thus we do not even know enough to judge the quality of the trial. Perhaps this is no coincidence.

This trial was bound to be a referendum on Russia’s criminal justice system. Mr. Klebnikov’s murder robbed the world of the leading foreign chronicler of Russia. If the country cannot do justice for a murdered high-profile foreign reporter, then surely it must be leagues behind when it comes to ordinary Russians.

Add to that fact the sheer importance, and promise, of the 41-year-old Mr. Klebnikov, a New Yorker of Russian descent, as a writer. More than any other, he opened the new Russia’s business, political and criminal worlds to English speakers. The founding editor of Forbes Russia, Mr. Klebnikov wrote with fluency on Kozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, the Chechen boss and subject of Mr. Klebnikov’s “Conversations With a Barbarian” — the reputed reason that the Klebnikov hit was ordered — at a time when few had access to Russia’s rebel leaders. He wrote “Godfather of the Kremlin,” an exhaustive profile of billionaire Boris Berezhovsky, which revealed the tycoon’s fleecing of Russian state firms.

Sources close to Russian investigators who assembled the case thought that the arguments against the two Chechens were sound. But it’s impossible to know for sure unless more information is made public. This was a wasted opportunity for Russia. It could have showcased its judicial progress before an international spotlight. Instead, it balked.

We hold this against Vladimir Putin. On Sept. 15, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, he pledged personally to Mr. Klebnikov’s widow, Musa, that justice would be served. It hasn’t happened yet.

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