MEDDLING IN RUSSIAN COURT CASES – PART V – POLITKOVSKAYA

This last in a series of posts concerning outside interference in Russian court cases is something of an anomaly since I am writing about proceedings that have not yet properly speaking begun.  However given the amount of attention the Politkovskaya case has attracted I think it would be odd if I did not discuss it.

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist working for the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.  Her dislike not to say loathing of the Russian government and of Vladimir Putin and the pro Russian Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in particular strongly coloured her journalism but earned her a substantial following in the west though not in Russia itself were she was little known.  As I have gradually come to realise many of the articles that appear in the western press about Russia are essentially reproductions of articles that have previously appeared in Novaya Gazeta and in the other main Russian opposition newspaper The Moscow Times.  As a long established journalist working for Novaya Gazeta Politkovskaya came to be a prime source of news and comment about Russia for western journalists based in Moscow and so it is not surprising that she developed something of a following amongst them.

On 2nd October 2006, which happens to be Putin’s birthday, Politkovskaya was murdered outside her apartment.  The result was an immediate international outcry.  Western governments, the western media, human rights agencies, the staff of Novaya Gazeta and the rest of Russia’s liberal opposition united in condemning the murder and in holding the Russian government as in some way responsible for it.  Candle lit vigils took place in various western cities and on a visit to Dresden Putin was confronted by an angry crowd who branded him a murderer.  Putin was also roundly criticised for saying that Politkovskaya was little known in Russia, though this happened to be true.  The international news media and the internet rapidly filled with various stories about the case together with dark and sinister theories about who was responsible for Politkovskaya’s death.  In the weeks and months that followed and indeed for several years after the Russian authorities found themselves on the receiving end of angry demands, many of them from western governments, that they solve the crime and apprehend the killers with the implication that they would be assumed to be protecting the killers if they did not.  These demands were typically accompanied with commentaries in the western press and in the websites of western human rights agencies about how political murders in Russia are supposedly never solved, which as it happens is untrue.

I always found these demands for the arrest and punishment of Politkovskaya’s killers and for a solution of the mystery sinister and absurd.  No police agency is ever in a position to guarantee that a particular crime will be solved and it is unreasonable to demand such a thing. By way of example the British police have failed to solve the murder of the BBC journalist Jill Dando whose killing outside her house several years bears a striking resemblance to the way in which Politkovskaya was killed.  In addition it is a well known fact that inappropriate pressure on the police to achieve a particular outcome in a case substantially increases the risk of a miscarriage.  This by the way happened in the Jill Dando case when media pressure on the police led to the arrest and wrongful conviction of a mentally ill man who was subsequently proved to have been innocent.

I have no doubt that many of the people who demanded that the Russian authorities “solve” the Politkovskaya case did so in the confident belief that the case would not in fact be solved.  It is not too cynical to say that in many cases this was not merely a belief but also a wish.  An unsolved crime allows room for speculation and for theories to thrive however bizarre those theories might be.  A solved crime does not.

In the event to everyone’s astonishment in August 2007, less than a year after the murder, Russia’s senior law officer, the Procurator General Yuri Chaika, announced a breakthrough in the case and said that Politkovskaya had been killed by a gang of criminals consisting of a Chechen family who were assisted by a number of corrupt law enforcement officers.  Since then there have been more arrests but basically the account of the murder given by the Procurator General in August 2007 has stood up well.  The final breakthrough came a few weeks ago when the person who allegedly fired the shot that killed Politkovskaya, who had fled to Belgium, was arrested by the Russian police in Chechnya where he had fled.  Apparently this arrest was made with the help of the Belgian authorities. 

Though the case has not yet come to trial several of the individuals involved have apparently confessed their part in the murder allowing the Russian authorities to reconstruct it in detail and to identify the role of each of those involved in it. Apparently the Russian authorities even know the price paid by the person who ordered the murder (apparently $2 million) and the place in the Ukraine where the order for the murder was given.  They have also hinted that they know the identity of the person who ordered the murder, though they have not disclosed it.  As this person apparently lives abroad it seems that for the moment he is beyond their reach.  With the investigation now largely complete it seems that the trial is now only weeks or possibly months away.

One might have expected that this news would be well received in the west.  In fact nothing could be further from the truth.  Though the progress of the investigation has been widely reported in Russia in the west it has been largely ignored.  For years after the Procurator General’s announcement the western media and western human rights agencies continued to report Politkovskaya’s case as if it was still a total mystery.  Though the Russian authorities announced several years ago that the suspected hitman was hiding in the west the western media showed absolutely no interest in tracking this man down or in discovering his whereabouts or who his associates were or who might be protecting or hiding him.  Nor has the western media shown the slightest interest in finding out who the person who the Russian authorities think ordered Politkovskaya’s killing is or what the evidence against this person is.

Whilst the western media has largely ignored the official investigation for a time it gave a disproportionate amount of attention and encouragement to an “investigation” of the murder supposedly carried out by the staff of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper Politkovskaya had worked for.  I remember some years ago switching on an ITN documentary into the “investigation of Politkovskaya’s murder” only to find that this was not the official investigation being carried out by the Russian police and judicial authorities but the unofficial investigation carried out by Novaya Gazeta.

Anyone who has any knowledge of law enforcement knows how utterly disastrous such amateur parallel “investigations” are.  The only thing they ever do is confuse witnesses and muddle evidence whilst wasting police time by throwing up false leads.  Judging from the documentary this was exactly what was happening in the Politkovskaya case with the Novaya Gazeta “investigation” producing nothing of value but making lots of fanciful claims and wild allegations against various important people who seemed to have no connection to the case.

The damage all this was doing became clear at a preliminary trial of two of the more junior members of the gang.  What was in essence a very straightforward case was thrown into complete confusion by a mass of muddled claims and testimony made by the lawyers who were purportedly representing Politkovskaya’s family but who actually appeared to be briefed by Novaya Gazeta.  Though I followed this trial quite closely I was never able to work out whether these lawyers and their clients thought the two defendants were guilty or innocent.  Subsequently it turned out that they did think that the defendants were guilty but nonetheless wanted them acquitted on the remarkable grounds that the conviction of the two defendants would provide the authorities with an excuse to end further investigation of the case on the pretext that it had been solved. As I remember the western reporters who were covering this trial found nothing odd or untoward in this convoluted not to say paranoid logic.  

Not surprisingly the jury became completely confused and delivered an acquittal verdict though because of the chaotic way in which the trial was conducted this verdict has been subsequently overturned by Russia’s Supreme Court, which has ordered a re trial.  I understand that following the recent arrest of the chief hitman the Russian authorities now intend to try these two defendants together with the other defendants in a single trial.

Since the debacle of the trial matters have moved on and I understand that even Novaya Gazeta now accepts that Politkovskaya’s case has been solved and has accepted the results of the official investigation.  That is still not the case in the west.  In contrast to the saturation coverage the murder received when Politkovskaya was killed the recent developments in the case have been almost entirely ignored.  The Wikipedia entry on the murder, whilst full of irrelevant detail and speculation, mentions none of the recent developments and appears to be months or even years out of date, which is incredible in a case that has attracted so much attention.  

There is of course a reason for this silence.  The Politkovskaya case has not gone to script.  Not only has the case been solved but it has been solved in a way that disproves the claims made about it.  Though the motive for the murder will not be known until the person who ordered it is brought to trial we already know enough about the murder to be able to say with confidence that none of the farfetched and fantastic theories that circulated following the murder were true.  Rather than acknowledge this fact, the western media after first reporting the case in a way that was calculated to undermine and obstruct the official investigation, has now fallen silent about it. 

I am sure I am not the only person who finds all this manipulative and cynical.  I had not heard of Politkovskaya until her murder and I am distinctly unimpressed by such of her reporting as I have read.  Nonetheless she was someone who undoubtedly believed in the cause she espoused.  It seems an odd way to honour her memory to let her case disappear down a memory hole now that its outcome no longer seems convenient.  In the meantime perhaps those who once wrote so much about it ought to ask themselves whether what they wrote in the end helped or hindered the quest to bring her murderers to justice.

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