May 2, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Do guilty verdicts in double murder mark beginning of end for impunity?

Reporters Without Borders welcomes the guilty verdicts that a Moscow court has handed down in the trial of two ultra-nationalist activists for the January 2009 double murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta trainee reporter Anastasia Baburova. “For once a serious investigation has been carried out into the killings of a human rights activist and a journalist in Russia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This is very rare and deserves to be hailed. Are the authorities finally going to end impunity for murders of journalists in Russia in the wake of President Medvedev’s confident pronouncements? The press freedom organization added: “They must nonetheless take care to ensure that investigators do not rush to prosecute suspects at the expensive of establishing the truth. In this case, the investigation seems to have been satisfactory although light still needs to be shed on some aspects.” After deliberating for six hours at the end of a three-month trial, the jury issued their guilty verdicts at 10 p.m. on the evening of 28 April. They decided that Nikita Tikhonov fired the shots that killed Markelov and Baburova, and that Yevgenya Khasis, his partner, helped him to obtain the murder weapon and plan Markelov’s murder, and followed Markelov on the day to help choose the right moment to strike. The jury did not find Khasis guilty of complicity in Baburova’s murder on the grounds that the intention had been to kill only Markelov, and that Tikhonov shot Baburova solely because she had seen him shoot Markelov and could have identified him. They were gunned down in central Moscow on 19 January 2009, shortly after Markelov gave news conference to condemn the early release of Yuri Budanov, a former army colonel who had been serving a 10-year jail sentence for the murder of a young Chechen woman. Markelov had acted in other sensitive cases involving Chechnya, nationalist groups and the defence of Moscow’s Khimki forest. The families of the victims told Reporters Without Borders they were satisfied with the verdicts. Baburova’s mother, Larissa, said she was convinced of the defendants’ guilt. Markelov’s brother, Mikhail, said “the trial was conducted in an open and honest manner.” The fact that the jury found the couple guilty of Markelov’s murder by 8 votes to 4, and Tikhonov guilty of Baburova’s murder by 7 votes to 5, “shows there was a serious discussion and that the decision was not taken unanimously, far from it,” Mikhail Markelov said. Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov said he trusted the jury and thought the evidence produced by the prosecution was “convincing.” The evidence against Tikhonov and Khasis consisted above all of the statements of witnesses near the scene of the murder, surveillance video camera recordings and the murder weapon, which was found at their home along with many other firearms. Other ultra-nationalist activists also testified against the couple. Khasis’ alibi was contradicted by his mobile phone’s geolocation record. The jurors accepted the prosecution’s claim that the couple’s motive was to avenge Markelov’s support for anti-fascist activists and, in particular, the fact that it was at Markelov’s initiative that Tikhonov had been wanted for his presumed role in the 2006 murder of the anti-fascist activist Aleksandr Ryukhin. This allegedly forced Tikhonov to go underground, falsify identity documents and get involved in arms trafficking (two other charges on which he was convicted). In an initial confession, Tikhonov had nonetheless said he shot Markelov because he had “defended Chechen women suicide bombers and got the Russian army officer Yuri Budanov convicted.” Several aspects of the case have yet to be clarified, above all the fact that the jurors found that Tikhonov had been helped by Khasis “and other unidentified persons.” The existence of other accomplices was mentioned several times by the prosecution. Who were they and what was their degree of involvement? And, in particular, what role did other members of the “Russky Obraz” ultra-nationalist group play? The trial was marked by retractions. Tikhonov himself retracted his initial confession, which he said he gave because he had been tortured and pressured by the police. One of the key witnesses, “Russky Obraz” leader Ilya Goryatchev, fled to Germany during the trail and withdrew his statement, claiming that it had been obtained under coercion. The judge refused to take account of his original statement on the grounds that it had not been given to the court. Several of the original jurors resigned during the trial. One of them, Anna Dobrashyova, told Moskovsky Komsomolets that the jury had been under pressure to find Tikhonov and Khasis guilty. She said one of the jurors had been deliberately “brain-washing” his colleagues. The judicial authorities did not respond to her comments. The case is not over. The court will issues its sentences on 5 May and the defence has already announced its intention to appeal against the conviction. If the case goes to appeal, Reporters Without Borders hopes the hearings will shed light on the aspects that have not been clarified. This case is a test. The Russian authorities have clearly realized this. We hope this verdict marks the end of the double-game the government has been playing with ultra-nationalist groups and the start of a determined fight against impunity in Russia. A lot remains to be done. The murderers of Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova and dozens of other journalists are still at large.