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Russian murder case loses some of its suspects

Of 10 arrested in a journalist's slaying, two are reportedly released and doubts are raised about two others.

August 31, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A high-profile case in which Russian police and security officers and others were accused of involvement in the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya appeared to be unraveling Thursday, just days after the arrests were announced.

Two suspects, identified previously by a Moscow newspaper as former surveillance specialists for the Moscow police, reportedly were released. Authorities said a third figure named in the case, a Federal Security Service officer, had actually been arrested in an unrelated investigation.

Another newspaper reported that a fourth suspect was in prison at the time of the slaying in October.

Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of President Vladimir V. Putin who gained international acclaim for her critical reporting on Moscow's actions in war-torn Chechnya, was gunned down in her apartment building.

Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced Monday that 10 suspects had been arrested, including former and current officers of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. Those officers had worked together with a Chechen-led contract killing gang, Chaika said.

Some Russian news media reported that 11 suspects had been detained.

"The big problem now is that after the prosecutor general made his statement, lots of leaks began both from official and unofficial sources, which creates a huge problem for the investigation," said Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which Politkovskaya worked.

"I don't want to comment on why some suspects were released today, because that may also harm the investigation," he said. "All I can say now is that all the people arrested several days ago still may have something to do with the murder."

With her critical reporting, Politkovskaya made many enemies among Russia's security and military forces and among supporters of pro-Moscow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Politkovskaya's proponents said after her death that people from these groups may have been responsible.

But pro-Kremlin news media and Putin himself suggested that her slaying had been ordered by critics of Putin living abroad who sought to make Russia look bad.

In announcing the arrests Monday, Chaika repeated that charge without offering any evidence. He said that the killing had so greatly damaged the image of Russian authorities that it must have been ordered by Putin's enemies.

Thursday would have been Politkovskaya's 49th birthday, and about 200 people gathered in a downtown square to honor her. Some then walked to her apartment building, placing flowers and photographs of her near the entrance.

Among them was Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who is now an opposition leader. Kasparov said the prosecutor's comments showed that he was in too much of a hurry to prove to the Kremlin that he was in line with its struggle against Putin's opponents based abroad.

Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation think tank, said the investigation was coming under heavy political pressure.

Alexander Kupryazhkin, the FSB's internal security chief, told reporters Monday that FSB Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov was in custody and suspected of "illegal activities related to the Anna Politkovskaya case."

On Thursday, however, a spokesman for the Moscow District Military Court backed away from that statement.

"The reasons why Ryaguzov was arrested have no relation to the case dealing with Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya's murder," Alexander Minchanovsky told the Russian news agency Interfax.

A Moscow court released the names of 10 suspects Wednesday; Ryaguzov's name was not included.

Two of those on the list, Alexei Berkin and Oleg Alimov, have been released, the Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and Interfax reported, citing an unnamed source. The prosecutor general's office declined to confirm or deny their release, but said that if suspects were released, they could be brought to justice later.

Murad Musayev, the lawyer for Chechen suspect Dzhabrail Makhmudov, said he thought the two men who were released might be intelligence officers. He expressed fear that Makhmudov and his two brothers, also detained, would be framed.

"At a recent interrogation, Dzhabrail was intimidated by the investigators in a very harsh way," the lawyer said. "He told me that a huge tall investigator sitting in front of him suddenly hit him on the head with a plastic bottle and said, 'OK, confess now. We are only stroking you for now. But in the next room your younger brother is sitting. I wish you could see his eyes now.' "

Meanwhile, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that another man accused in the case, former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, had been in prison from 2004 until two months after Politkovskaya's slaying.

Investigators believe that Politkovskaya was killed by a Chechen gang and that law enforcement officers helped them by tracing the reporter and collecting information, Kommersant reported.

Raisa Landysheva, 62, a pensioner carrying Politkovskaya's portrait who joined those honoring her outside her apartment building, said she didn't believe Chaika's accusations.

"The case is already falling to pieces," she said. "How can we trust what they are saying? This is truly disgusting, especially today, the anniversary of Anna's birthday."

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david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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