Thursday, May 12, 2011

Russia: Convictions of ultra-nationalists for murdering lawyer and journalist a victory for justice

Source: IFEX

Two ultra-nationalists have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms for the January 2009 double murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and "Novaya Gazeta" trainee reporter Anastasia Baburova - a landmark victory against impunity in Russia, say the Glasnost Defence Foundation (GDF), the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) and other IFEX members.

"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 (RSF) said. "This is very rare and deserves to be hailed."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Nikita Tikhonov was jailed for life for killing Markelov and Baburova in January 2009 as they were leaving a press conference in Moscow. Tikhonov shot Markelov in the back of the head with a pistol from close range and then shot Baburova - allegedly because she could have identified him.

Tikhonov's girlfriend, Yevgeniya Khasis, was also tried and sentenced to 18 years in a penal colony for helping coordinate the attack, says CPJ.

A jury at Moscow's city court found the pair guilty late last month after hearing they had targeted Markelov because of his work prosecuting neo-Nazis. Tikhonov had initially confessed but both of the accused later claimed they were not responsible for the deaths.

In contrast to the disputed trials surrounding other high profile murders such as Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, family and colleagues of the victims said they were satisfied with the outcome. Markelov's brother, Mikhail, told RSF that "the trial was conducted in an open and honest manner."

"Novaya Gazeta" editor Dmitry Muratov said he trusted the jury and thought the evidence produced by the prosecution was "convincing."

During the trial, which lasted more than three months, the jurors heard that Tikhonov, 31, and Khasis, 26, were involved with an ultra-right group called Russky Obraz, say news reports.

Tikhonov's motive was vengeance because Markelov was the lawyer who represented the family of a young anti-fascist activist who was murdered in 2006. A search warrant was issued for Tikhonov in connection with that killing. Although he was not captured, Tikhonov was forced to go underground and three accomplices to the crime received heavy prison sentences as a result of Markelov's efforts.

According to GDF, in the final days of the trial, both Tikhonov and Khasis had allegedly attempted to kill themselves "in protest against the lawlessness that triumphs in court," one of the defence lawyers claimed. But Vladimir Zherebyonkov, representative of the victims' interests, described their efforts as "attempts to drag out the trial and move the jurors to pity."

Defence lawyers have said they will appeal.

RSF says questions remain around the case. "The existence of other accomplices was mentioned several times by the prosecution. Who were they and what was their degree of involvement?" asked RSF.

According to the "Guardian", neo-Nazis have already written posts on online forums threatening the judge in the trial. But Natalya Yudina of Sova Centre, a group that tracks nationalist aggression, expressed hope the outcome would act as a deterrent.

"In the last year there has been an increase in guilty verdicts for neo-Nazi hate crimes and we've seen a corresponding drop in the number of violent racist attacks," she said. "Long sentences undoubtedly have an effect, and today's court decision is one more step in the right direction."