Russia arrests 10 in killing of journalist

Posted in Russia | 28-Aug-07 | Author: C.J. Chivers| Source: International Herald Tribune

Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika (L) holds a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Novo-Ogarevo.

MOSCOW: Russia's prosecutor general said Monday that 10 people had been arrested for roles in the contract killing last October of Anna Politkovskaya, the prominent journalist and Kremlin critic, including a Chechen crime boss collaborating with career officers from the country's police and intelligence services.

The announcement, at once tantalizing and murky, appeared to point to an official role in a crime that drew international condemnation. But it also managed to raise more questions than it answered, and was denounced by Politkovskaya's former editor as a whitewash designed to deflect blame from those who had ordered the journalist's death.

The controversy arose because the prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, suggested that the killing had not been carried out to silence Politkovskaya, whose efforts to uncover corruption and brutality under the administration of President Vladimir Putin had brought her international acclaim but scorn from officials here.

Rather, the prosecutor said, the killing was designed to discredit the Kremlin and destabilize the Russian state. That now-official theory marked a reversal of the version broadly accepted by her peers, who have said she was killed in retaliation for her work or to prevent future stories coming out.

Chaika added that the killing was ordered from abroad, although he declined to name the suspect or disclose his whereabouts, and provided no evidence of foreign involvement.

The prosecutor's description of the motive aligned neatly with Putin's first public statements last year about the killing, and with a pattern of government claims that foreign hands are busily trying to undermine Russia and the Kremlin and to tarnish their reputations.

It was swiftly criticized as an act of political convenience by Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper where Politkovskaya worked. Muratov said that he thought the 10 suspects had been involved in the murder, but said Chaika's description of their motive had been tailored to the Kremlin's orders. He labeled the official version "a nightmare."

"Political interference is hindering the investigation," he said by telephone. "The prosecutor general is acting not like a prosecutor general, but a politician who works at the instructions of the president."

He added that he had cooperated with the government's investigators on the case and had helped uncover evidence, but had never found evidence supporting Chaika's claim of foreign involvement. "We did not get any information of that kind," he said.

Politkovskaya, 48, had specialized in human rights issues and in uncovering crimes related to the war in Chechnya, a theme that few Russian journalists still pursue. She was also an author, and had excoriated Putin for what she described as his administration's cruelty, arrogance and manifest corruption.

The targets of her scathing critiques were many and their backgrounds wide. They ranged from Putin himself and Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord-turned-Chechen president who has become the Kremlin's principal proxy in the war-weary republic, to low-ranking officers she accused of corruption, murder, torture and more.

For months the investigation had been conducted quietly and there were hints that it was making progress. Editors at Novaya Gazeta, often at odds with the authorities, had said this year that they were cooperating closely with prosecutors while conducting a parallel investigation of their own.

Politkovskaya's former colleagues also had said that in the interest of not damaging the work of the law enforcement agencies, they would refrain from publishing their findings until prosecutors made public the official results. They had expressed hope for an honest conclusion, but also worry that the official investigation would be undermined by Kremlin orders.

Muratov said that Novaya Gazeta had extensive evidence that "all of the resources of the special services had been used in committing this crime." He added that the newspaper would publish its own results, in all likelihood before Oct. 7, the anniversary of Politkovskaya's death.

Chaika, speaking at a press conference, said the investigators had arrested 10 men who had worked in two groups to organize the surveillance of Politkovskaya and then to kill her. He said the group responsible for the killing had carried out "several contract murders not only in Russia but also on the territory of Ukraine and Latvia."

He added that some of Politkovskaya's killers had been involved in the contract killings of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, and perhaps of Andrei Kozlov, a top Russian bank regulator. That claim seemed not to square with past official statements about these previous cases, both of which had already led to separate arrests. Chaika did not elaborate on it.

Among those arrested for the Politkovskaya killing thus far, he said, were a police major and three former police officers, who were working with a criminal gang led by a Chechen. Also among them, he said, was a former officer in the FSB, the principal successor to the Soviet KGB.

The Russian criminal code allows suspects to be held in custody for extended periods before being charged with a crime. Chaika said that the arrests had been approved by a court and that the suspects would be charged and brought to trial after the investigation was completed. He declined to release the suspects' names.

Muratov identified the FSB officer as Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, who he said worked in an internal affairs unit in Moscow that specialized in investigating crimes by FSB officers.