Journalist's murder puts Russian justice on trial

Politkovskaya hearing highlights 'legal nihilism'
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IN A tiny courtroom on the Arbat, Moscow's most famous street, three men sit in a cage, accused of assisting the murder of the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya two years ago.

For the most part they sit silently. Sometimes they close their eyes and catch some sleep. They pay no attention to the dozens of reporters cramped along one wall of the small room, or the oversized riot police in blue camouflage that stand watch over them.

The trial against the three – none of whom is accused of ordering the killing of one of the Kremlin's most outspoken critics – began in earnest this week, after extended wrangling over whether it would be open to the press.

The trial could have been a case to prove President Dmitry Medvedev's stated desire to combat the country's "legal nihilism". Instead, critics say, it has worked more to illustrate the farcical nature of Russia's justice system, and how little is expected to change during the reign of Mr Medvedev, himself a former lawyer.

Politkovskaya, who irked the Kremlin and the powers in Chechnya with her dogged reports on corruption and human rights, was shot dead in her central Moscow apartment in October 2006. It took a year before suspects in the case were arrested, and Russia's prosecutor general insisted at the time the attack had been organised abroad, strongly hinting it was ordered by Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who lives in self-imposed exile in London.

Today, three men are standing trial – two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and a former police officer, Sergei Khadzh-ikurbanov. All stand accused of aiding the suspected killer, another Makhmudov brother, who remains on the run. A fourth man sits with the accused, but is not being tried in connection with the Politkovskaya case. He is a former officer in the Federal Security Service, justifying prosecutors' decision to hold the trial in a military court.

As the trial opened this week, a lawyer for the brothers revealed that the prosecutors' investigation declared that Politkosvkaya's murder was ordered by a Russian politician, but without giving a name. "Any document produced by the court must be founded on the solid basis of fact," the lawyer, Murad Musayev, said during a break in the trial on Wednesday.

"In post-Soviet Russia it's not like that. It was the same practice in the Soviet Union, but no one worried about it. But in modern Russia, when we talk of democracy, still we just have to guess." Little has been clear in the trial so far. Last week, Yevgeny Zubov, the judge presiding over the military court, declared the trial would be open to the press – a demand long pressed by lawyers both for the defendants and Politkovskaya's family.

The next day he reversed course, ordering the trial shut after saying that jurors signed a note calling for a closed courtroom because they feared for their safety. That night, one juror phoned a popular news radio station to say no such note had been signed.

Prosecutors opened their arguments on Wednesday, walking the remaining jurors through the details of the murder – how Politkovskaya had just returned from doing her food shopping, when she was shot in the neck, chest, hip and head, and lay dead on the floor of her lift. Vera Pashkovskaya, for the prosecution, presents the evidence in a whisper, so that lawyers regularly call for her to speak up. Politkovskaya's grown children, Ilya and Vera, listen silently.

The parents of Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and of Rustam Makhmudov, the suspected gunman, have attended every hearing. They have left their home in Chechnya to stay with relatives in Moscow as the trial unfolds. They are in their mid-50s but look decades older.

"I know 100 per cent that they're not guilty," says Ruslan Makhmudov. "But they will probably be found guilty. I have lived, I know how the system works."