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Russia arrests suspect in ’06 slaying of activist reporter

By Ellen Barry
New York Times / June 1, 2011

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MOSCOW — Russian authorities yesterday arrested the man they suspect of shooting journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose apparent contract killing in 2006 sent a chilling message about the hazards of challenging the powerful in contemporary Russia.

After evading arrest for nearly four years, the suspect, Rustam Makhmudov, was taken into custody in the southern region of Chechnya. Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee said its investigators discovered Makhmudov had been hiding in Belgium and had opened a joint investigation with Belgian authorities that forced Makhmudov to leave that country and return to Chechnya.

Alexander I. Bastrykin, who heads the Investigative Committee, traveled to Belgium several times to consult with counterparts there, officials said. Makhmudov was the missing link in a 2009 murder trial that ended in acquittal for three other suspects.

Two of his brothers had been accused of acting as his lookout and driver, and a former police investigator had been accused of hiring the Makhmudov brothers and overseeing logistics. But the prosecution offered thin evidence, relying heavily on cellphone billing records.

The Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial, but the second trial was adjourned so that investigators could search for Makhmudov.

The deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya had worked, said he hoped the arrest would lead to a new murder trial in the coming months. “They have a better chance of proving the involvement of all the individuals they want, because the triggerman is the key to proving a crime,’’ said the deputy editor, Sergei M. Sokolov, whose journalists had undertaken an independent investigation of Politkovskaya’s death. “That is, if Rustam Makhmudov really is the killer.’’

Murad Musayev, a lawyer who defended one of Makhmudov’s brothers two years ago, said Makhmudov denies playing any part in the killing.

Politkovskaya was a critic of the Kremlin’s policy in Chechnya, and in particular of its leader, a loyal lieutenant to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his presidency.

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