Russian authorities have announced the arrest of the man they believe murdered investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya almost five years ago, a significant development that might lead to a breakthrough in the long-dormant case.
But lawyers, friends, and relatives of Ms. Politkovskaya say they aren’t impressed by the detention late Monday of Rustam Makhmudov, in his home Chechen district of Achkoi-Martan, where he had probably been hiding in plain sight for some time.
“We do not consider the detention of the perpetrator of the crime to be a breakthrough because the investigators have long suspected Rustam Makhmudov of involvement in this crime,” Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer for the Politkovskaya family, said in a statement. “I can’t thank the investigators for his arrest because it should have been done four years ago… . The crime will only be solved when its masterminds are found and punished.”
Two of Mr. Makhmudov’s brothers, together with a third suspect, were acquitted of being accomplices in the contract slaying two years ago after a trial that had Politkovskaya’s supporters tearing their hair in frustration regarding what they saw as a thoroughly botched prosecution.
Russia’s Supreme Court subsequently overturned the court verdict and the Makhmudov brothers are still awaiting retrial.
But Rustam Makhmudov, alleged to be the triggerman, reportedly evaded capture by fleeing abroad. According to the Russian police investigative committee, authorities in Belgium, where he spent time, aided in the special operation to capture him.
Politkovskaya, a reporter with the crusading opposition newsweekly Novaya Gazeta, was a tough critic of Kremlin policies in general and especially the brutal methods used to pacify rebel Chechnya in what became known as the “second Chechen war” after Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999.
Her murder cast a chill over Russia’s beleaguered prodemocracy community and independent media, and remains a key source of suspicion and mistrust toward the authorities.
“Most of us are skeptical that there will be any light at the end of the tunnel in this case,” says Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst with the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based media watchdog. “There has been no normal, honest, public dialogue between society and the official investigation. They seem to think it’s best to remain silent [about the course of the investigation], and keep us all guessing. So, nobody is cheering yet.”
But some experts say the arrest of Makhmudov could signal a political shift in the Kremlin, and perhaps reflect efforts by President Dmitry Medvedev to keep his oft-repeated pledges to get to the bottom of the Politkovskaya case.
“We hope this will prove to be the first step, and that it will lead to further steps that will eventually see all participants in this murder brought to justice,” says Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya’s newspaper.
Like most of Politkovskaya’s supporters, she says the case will never be solved until the contractor who ordered her death is unmasked and brought to justice.
“We wish the process would go faster and show more concrete results,” she says. “The more time passes, the fewer are the chances to solve this case.”