A Russian jury on May 5 acquitted two Chechen men, Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhaev, who were accused of murdering Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, in July 2004. Prosecutors had argued that the two defendants carried out a contract killing ordered by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, a former Chechen separatist official and alleged organized crime figure who was the subject of Klebnikov’s critical book, “Conversation With a Barbarian” (see Chechnya Weekly, January 6, 2006; August 18 and June 22, 2005). The Moscow City Court also acquitted Moscow-based notary Fail Sadretdinov, who was accused of belonging to a criminal gang that included Dukuzov and Vakhaev. As the Los Angeles Times noted on May 6, many observers had been skeptical of the government’s case. The newspaper noted that Klebnikov’s colleague Alexander Gordeyev, who spoke to the fatally-wounded American journalist just after he was shot from a car as he walked home from work, said that Klebnikov had told him that the gunman looked Russian.
The New York Times on May 6 quoted Klebnikov’s widow and brothers as saying that they respected the process of the jury trial and were satisfied with the Russian prosecutor’s commitment to the case. Yet the newspaper also reported that they “expressed dismay” that the case remained unsolved. “This just adds yet another chapter to that sad story and tragic history of journalists getting knocked off with impunity in Russia,” said Michael Klebnikov, one of the victim’s brothers. “It’s horrendous.” While the trial was held in secret, Michael Klebnikov told The New York Times that the evidence of which he was aware indicated that the accused men had indeed had a role in the murder. According to the newspaper, this view was shared by a lawyer involved in the case who requested anonymity because there of a gag order. The lawyer said he had reviewed the evidence and that it included extensive cellphone records showing that both suspects were near Paul Klebnikov for two weeks before his death, but never before, which suggested that they had conducted extensive surveillance. The lawyer also told The New York Times that one of the suspects had left fingerprints in the car from which Klebnikov was shot, that clothing from the other defendant had been in the vehicle, and that both defendants went on a spending spree after the killing, suggesting that they had been paid.
Still, Michael Klebnikov refrained from saying the jury was wrong, TheNew York Times reported. “I don’t want to imply that I would have decided differently,” he said. “The evidence seemed very strong. But there may have been other factors that may have entered into the equation.” Paul Klebnikov’s widow, Musa Klebnikov, told the newspaper she hoped the investigation and legal proceedings would continue, no matter the ultimate outcome. “I think the bigger question is not who were the hit men, but who ordered it,” she said “The bigger question looms. Who ordered it, and why?”
Interfax reported on May 6 that another brother of the victim, Peter Klebnikov, had told NTV television that he was shocked by the acquittal. “We were told by our representatives and representatives of the U.S. government that the proof against the accused was solid,” he said. “So we were very shocked by the outcome.”
The Los Angeles Times quoted Akhmed Dukuzov, brother of one of the acquitted defendants, as saying: “I didn’t think a Chechen had a chance of a fair trial, especially in Moscow. This verdict will give a lot of confidence to the entire Chechen people.” Marina Dzhimaeva, wife of the other acquitted defendant, Musa Vakhaev, told the newspaper in a telephone interview from Grozny following the verdict: “Relatives, friends and people I don’t even know came to celebrate. It’s like a big holiday, not only in our yard, but in the rest of Grozny. Everybody’s talking only about it …. It is a great day for us.”
Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Russian press freedom advocacy group, called the verdict “a very big setback for the authorities,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “They wanted to declare this case solved and out of the way,” Panfilov told the newspaper. “They wanted to once again show to the public in Russia and the world that Chechens are bandits and murderers, which was supposed to go down as just another proof that the Kremlin’s tough line in Chechnya was fully justified. They wanted at the same time to declare the Klebnikov murder case solved once and for all, without trying to find the real culprits.” The authorities failed to get a guilty verdict because the jury refused to be manipulated, Panfilov said. “I was really relieved to hear this verdict,” he told the newspaper. “It showed that despite all roadblocks on the way the country is slowly moving toward democracy and that no matter how you may try, you can’t manipulate all the people.”
The former publisher of the Russian version of Forbes, Leonid Bershidsky, who worked with Paul Klebnikov, also welcomed the verdict. “I was in the court and gave testimonial evidence,” Kavkazky Uzel on May 6 quoted Bershidsky as saying. “I had the feeling that the sides were carrying out a speculative argument over whether the Chechens needed to kill him or not. I had the feeling that there was not enough proof from the first moment to the last of the guilt of those who were on trial. At present it is customary to dump practically all the notorious terrorist acts and contract killings on the Chechens. It was a version that many found easy to believe.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged the Russian authorities to do everything they could to find Klebnikov’s killers and offered U.S. assistance to find those responsible, the Associated Press reported on May 6. “We urge Russian authorities to do everything possible to find and prosecute all those responsible for the murder—those who pulled the trigger and those who ordered the killing,” said McCormack. “The intimidation and murder of journalists is an affront to all who value democratic values and must not be tolerated. Our thoughts go out to the Klebnikov family during this particularly difficult period.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom advocacy group, welcomed the verdict in the Klebnikov case. It said in a statement released on May 5 that the verdict confirmed “the doubts that Reporters Without Borders has been expressing since the start of the case as to how seriously the authorities were conducting the investigation, and the official contention advanced by the prosecutor’s office which, up until now, had favored only one theory: that of the Chechen lead.” Reporters Without Borders added: “We have always stressed that many criminals and statesmen had reasons to hold a grudge against the journalist because of his investigative work on alleged links between Chechen separatists and Kremlin representatives. The Klebnikov case always seemed more complex to us than the theory advanced by the prosecutor. We demand that a new investigation be initiated that will follow up all likely leads, so that some light can be shed on the identity of the perpetrators and those who hired them to commit this crime. The whole case should be tried all over again from the beginning.”
The prosecutor in the case, Dmitry Shokhin, told reporters on May 6 that the case was plagued by “flagrant procedural violations” and that the verdict would be appealed to Russia’s Supreme Court.