July 13, 2024

President Vladimir V. Putin has pardoned one of the convicted organizers of the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in return for his service in Ukraine, his lawyer said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of such reprieves for high-profile criminals in Russia.

Sergei G. Khadzhikurbanov, a former law enforcement officer who was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison over the killing of Ms. Politkovskaya in 2006, was pardoned in a decree issued by Mr. Putin, his lawyer, Aleksei V. Mikhalchik, said in a phone interview.

Ms. Politkovskaya, who became one of Russia’s most acclaimed journalists as a result of her uncompromising reports of human rights abuses during the country’s wars in Chechnya that erupted in the 1990s, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow. Her murder caused shock waves in Russia and abroad as it highlighted the growing dangers of anti-Kremlin reporting in the country.

The news of Mr. Khadzhikurbanov’s pardon was first reported by Baza, a Russian news outlet, and RBC, a Russian business daily. Mr. Mikhalchik said that he did not know when the decree had been signed. Activists said this year that the Russian government had started a mass campaign to pardon convicts in return for fighting in Ukraine.

The pardon of Mr. Khadzhikurbanov follows a series of similar decisions by Russia that highlights how the Kremlin is willing to release convicted criminals, including murderers and rapists, as long as they help the war effort in Ukraine.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, on Friday defended the practice. “They are atoning with blood in storm brigades, under bullets and under shells,” he told reporters, referring to the criminals.

Last week, Alyona V. Popova, a Russian rights activist who has been studying similar cases, reported that a man who had been sentenced to 17 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend was pardoned in April because of his military service in Ukraine.

The investigation of Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder took years to complete and was marred by conflicting testimonies and retrials. Apart from Mr. Khadzhikurbanov, four other men were found guilty of organizing and executing the murder, receiving sentences from 12 years to life in prison. But the question of who ordered the killing remains unsolved.

In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that despite convicting “a group of men who had directly carried out the contract killing” the Russian state had “failed to take adequate investigatory steps to find the person or persons who had commissioned the murder.”

Mr. Khadzhikurbanov was acquitted by a jury in 2009, but he was convicted and sentenced after a second trial. Mr. Mikhalchik, his lawyer, welcomed the news of the pardon because he said he believed that his client was innocent.

“A juridical mistake has been righted,” Mr. Mikhalchik said in a phone interview.

Mr. Mikhalchik noted that Mr. Khadzhikurbanov had been recruited at a prison in southern Russia to serve in army formations in Ukraine shortly after the invasion in 2022.

Mr. Khadzhikurbanov’s experience in special police units helped him during his service, Mr. Mikhalchik said. After serving out the first contract signed in prison, Mr. Khadzhikurbanov signed another one as a volunteer, his lawyer said, adding that his client was most likely currently engaged in fighting on the front line and therefore could not be contacted.

Rights activists say that the practice of pardoning convicted criminals for serving in Ukraine could have a combustible effect on Russian society.

“It turns out that in order to remain unpunished you need to kill as many people as possible,” Ms. Popova, the rights activist, said in a phone interview. “It is a completely inverted pyramid.”

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