10 years on, Anna Politkovskaya murder still unsolved

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Moscow (AFP) - An empty chair and a small potted palm still stand in Anna Politkovskaya's former office, preserved as a shrine by her colleagues at the Novaya Gazeta opposition newspaper.

An uncompromising critic of Russia's bloody suppression of its opponents in Chechnya, the journalist was gunned down on October 7, 2006 in the entrance hall of her apartment block. She was 48.

The murder, committed on President Vladimir Putin's birthday, caused shockwaves round the world particularly in the West where Politkovskaya was widely known for her investigative reporting on Chechnya.

"We asked her many times to stop covering Chechnya because it had grown too dangerous," said the newspaper's deputy editor Sergei Sokolov, her former colleague.

"But Anna said she could not turn a blind eye to what the Russian authorities were doing there," he told AFP.

For two days after Politkovskaya's murder, Putin pointedly made no public comment despite the storm of media interest. He finally broke his silence to promise an "objective investigation."

The investigation and the trial saw a series of dramatic twists: the authorities unexpectedly replaced the investigative team, the suspected killer fled to Siberia, three suspects were acquitted and then the Supreme Court overturned the verdict.

"It was very hard," Politkovskaya's son Ilya told AFP. "And in the end, there was no kind of justice."

- 'Justice not done' -

In June 2014 after eight years, a Moscow court finally handed long sentences to the five defendants -- four of whom were ethnic Chechens.

Rustam Makhmudov, who fired the fatal shots, and his uncle Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, identified as the murder's organiser, are serving life terms.

The court also handed long sentences to their accomplices: 20 years for former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov and 12 and 13 1/2 years respectively for the gunman's two brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov.

But despite the harshness of the sentences, the verdict did not provide an exhaustive explanation as demanded by Politkovskaya's loved ones.

"Justice has not been done," said Sokolov. "Yes, those who killed her are in prison, but not their boss, nor the boss of their boss."

For her son, "justice stopped halfway."

"Many politicians say the case is closed, but that's a lie. We're nowhere near. The organisers have yet to go on trial."

And a group of investigators set up to identify the masterminds has made no breakthrough for two years.

"All the trails lead back to Chechnya, to the highest level of its elite, but the Russian authorities are stalling the investigation," said Pavel Kanygin, a journalist at Novaya Gazeta.

"Until there is a change of political regime in Russia, those who gave the order will remain free."

- Similarities to Nemtsov murder -

The gunning down of the opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov close to the Kremlin on February 27, 2015, revived painful memories for Politkovskaya's relatives.

"We quickly noticed a large number of similarities in the way (Nemtsov's) murder was carried out," said her son Ilya.

"They caught the guys who killed him immediately and made them testify in front of television cameras before arresting them very quickly, plus they are mainly Chechens," he said.

"Even the court process, which has just started, is very similar."

For Politkovskaya's son, Nemtsov's murder leads to an uncomfortable conclusion -- "that nothing has changed."

On Friday, to mark the 10th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder, Novaya Gazeta invited her supporters to gather beside the memorial plaque at the entrance to the newspaper's offices.

Even though six of its staff and stringers have been killed since its foundation in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has never lost heart, said Sokolov.

"There was just one occasion," he admitted. "It was just after Anna's murder. We got together and decided to close the newspaper. Because no newspaper is worth sacrificing human lives for."

"But the younger people on staff were against this. And we decided to continue, on condition that we found those guilty for the deaths of our journalists," he recalls.

"Sooner or later, we will get there."

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