Nationalist Couple Convicted In Murder Of Russian Lawyer, Journalist

A Moscow man and his partner have been convicted in the brazen 2009 murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and a young reporter, Anastasia Baburova.

A Moscow jury late on April 28 found 30-year-old Nikita Tikhonov guilty of the murders and said his girlfriend, 25-year-old Yevgenia Khasis, had been complicit in the killings.

Tikhonov and Khasis protested their innocence throughout the trial. But the prosecution sought to portray the couple as radical nationalists bent on eliminating Markelov, a prominent defender of minority rights.

Prosecutor Boris Laktionov praised the verdict as fair. “The jurors decided wisely and conclusively,” added. “They will be asking for a just punishment that is adequate to the committed crime.”

Markelov was shot in broad daylight in January 2009, just minutes after leaving a press conference in central Moscow. Baburova, who had been interviewing Markelov for the opposition newspaper “Novaya gazeta,” was shot as she attempted to protect Markelov and later died of her injuries in hospital.

Oleg Orlov said the “real killers” had been convicted.Markelov’s death was mourned as one in a series of deaths of Russian rights defenders, including journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in October 2006; and activist Natalya Estemirova, a member of the Russian rights group Memorial, who was kidnapped and shot dead in Chechnya in July 2009.

Just before his death, the 34-year-old Markelov had openly criticized the early release from prison of former Russian Colonel Yury Budanov, who had been jailed for strangling to death an 18-year-old Chechen woman.

The prominent case was seen as reflecting some of the worst atrocities perpetrated by federal forces in the North Caucasus republic, and many activists speculated that Markelov’s murder was tied to his intention to appeal Budanov’s release.

Rights watchers hailed the conviction of Tikhonov and Khasis as a rare instance of courtroom justice in a country where many high-profile murders go unresolved.

Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, said in a statement, “Today we can confirm that the real killers, and not someone arbitrarily accused, were seated on the defendants’ bench.”

Mikhail Markelov, the brother of the slain lawyer, echoed the sentiment, saying he was certain Tikhonov and Khasis were responsible for his brother’s death.

“I wanted more than anyone for the verdict, and subsequently the sentence, to be fair. And believe me, I did not want any innocent people to be put on trial,” Markelov said.

“And if I had been certain of their innocence, I would have done everything for them to get a ‘not guilty’ verdict.”

Jury Under Pressure

After failing to reach consensus, the jury voted by a slim margin of 7-5 to convict Tikhonov of the murders and Khasis as an accessory. A majority is required for conviction in Russian jury trials.

Mikhail Markelov pays his last respects at his brother’s funeral in Moscow on January 23, 2009.But there are signs court procedures did not always run smoothly during the trial.

Rumors suggested attempts had been made to sway the jury’s decision in favor of a conviction. A former juror who resigned from the case told the “Moskovsky komsomolets” newspaper the jury had been pressured to convict Tikhonov and Khasis.

A key witness for the prosecution also attempted to retract his testimony, saying he had been forced to deliver it under duress.

But Roman Karpinsky, a lawyer for the Markelov family, argued that the divided vote indicated that the deliberations, though perhaps long and difficult, had been conducted with no outside pressure.

“Although some individuals sympathizing with the accused tried to convince the public that the jury was biased and prejudiced,” he said, “the vote showed that there indeed had been a lot of discussion, and the votes just split the way they did.”

Maryana Torocheshnikova, who covered the trial for RFE/RL’s Russian Service, said the jury was forced to recess twice on April 28, “the first time to clarify some questions and the second time to revise the verdict, after the judge…said there had been violations in the formation of the verdict.”

The final verdict was announced close to 10 p.m.

The jury also ruled that neither Tikhonov nor Khasis was deserving of leniency. For Tikhonov, that could mean the court may jail him for life once sentencing hearings begin next week.

‘Novaya gazeta’ reporter Anastasia BaburovaLawyers for Tikhonov and Khasis say the couple intends to appeal the decision. Gennady Nebritov, who worked on Khasis’s defense, accused the judge, Aleksandr Zamashnyuk, of presiding over an unfair trial.

“The defense believes that the judge openly sided with the prosecution in this case. In fact, the prosecution received a carte blanche in this trial,” Nebritov said. “We filed a few complaints and objections against the judge’s actions, but the trial went on.”

The Real Killers?

Many observers initially believed the murders were the work of Russian intelligence officers, saying the killings — conducted in broad daylight with a pistol equipped with a silencer — were more sophisticated than the usual violence perpetrated by nationalist groups.

Tikhonov, the son of a former intelligence officer and a graduate of Moscow State University, admitted to selling illegal weapons and forged documents, but said he had not killed Markelov and Baburova.

Both he and Khasis have been tied to the Russian nationalist group Russky Obraz. The couple has admitted to holding nationalist views, but said they oppose violence.

Markelov and Baburova were shot in broad daylight in central Moscow on January 19, 2009.Both Tikhonov and Khasis were reported to have tried to slash their wrists ahead of the verdict, and appeared in court wearing bandages. Court officials said their injuries were not serious and did not prevent them from testifying in the trial.

Baburova’s mother, Larisa, attended the trial and expressed hope that the verdict would prevent further such crimes. She spoke with emotion about her daughter, who had been investigating neo-Nazi groups for “Novaya gazeta” when she was killed at just 25 years old.

“Stanislav Markelov was the pride of Russia. And I am proud that my Anastasia stood next to this person, that she shared his views, that by being there she was trying to protect him from attacks by the neo-Nazis,” Baburova said.

“And, of course, this should never happen again.”

written by Daisy Sindelar, with contribution from RFE/RL’s Russian Service

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