By Benjamin Bidder and Matthias Schepp in Moscow
In Moscow, a person who reveals that he was born in Lyubertsy is likely to be regarded with suspicion or greeted with a knowing smile. The drab satellite city southeast of the capital has a reputation not unlike Corleone in Sicily, namely as a mafia stronghold.
In the 1990s, 500 thugs, notorious for armed robbery and dealing in weapons, controlled Lyubertsy's factories and nightclubs. Many of them were bodybuilders. They even had their own song, in which they touted their little city as a "center of rough physical violence." A photo of their leader, Sergei Zaitsev, nicknamed "The Rabbit," still hangs on the wall at the Titan, a local bodybuilding gym. Zaitsev was killed in a shootout in 1993.
Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov grew up in Lyubertsy, between rows of prefabricated buildings and a cosmonaut memorial, and when he chose a profession, it seemed as if he were trying to shake off his hometown's criminal reputation. He became a police officer. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in charge of a secret department of the municipal office of the interior in Moscow.
Today Pavlyuchenkov, a balding, soft-spoken man, is the key figure in the investigation of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. He is both the key witness and a co-perpetrator. Pavlyuchenkov is at the center of a web of intrigue consisting of the Chechen mafia, corrupt police officers and shadowy intelligence operatives.
Politkovskaya had documented human rights violations in Chechnya and accused then-President Vladimir Putin of "state terrorism." She was shot to death in front of the elevator in her apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006.
The Dark Side of Putin's Russia
Five years later, the names of the presumed killers are known. A Chechen who allegedly fired the deadly shots was arrested in May, and Pavlyuchenkov's arrest followed in August. It now seems possible that the killers, organizers and middlemen will end up behind bars -- no small feat in a country where most murders of journalists and civil rights activists are never solved.
There has not been sufficient proof to substantiate conspiracy theories that the Kremlin or a shady exiled oligarch was behind the murder. Instead, the trail leads to the Caucasus republic of Chechnya, the realm of the despotic ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.
Politkovskaya's cowardly murder has directed global attention to the dark side of Putin's control of the country: the muzzling of the press and the relationships between law enforcement agencies and organized crime.
Key witness Pavlyuchenkov is a case in point. The members of his special unit drive cars that police officers are never permitted to stop. The personnel department is forbidden from keeping photos and records of these employees. They work in unmarked offices in downtown Moscow, one of which is next door to the Moscow Conservatory.
Charging $100 an Hour for Shady Services
One of the official responsibilities of Pavlyuchenkov's unit was to closely shadow criminals and suspects. In fact, the law enforcement officers also took advantage of their resources and expertise to commit their own crimes. For example, Pavlyuchenkov offered the paid services of his employees to husbands spying on their wives, politicians and businesspeople seeking information about their competitors and even to his friends in the mafia. He charged $100 (74) per hour.
Apparently the services the unit offered also included contract killings, as in the Politkovskaya case. Investigators have learned that to prepare for the murder, Pavlyuchenkov ordered at least one of his agents to track Politkovskaya and record her habits. He also recruited three Chechens, including the presumed gunman, and he is believed to have obtained the murder weapon, an Izh blank gun, which was converted to live ammunition in an underground workshop at an abandoned rail depot on the outskirts of Moscow.
Interviews with investigators, attorneys and Politkovskaya's journalist colleagues reveal a motive for Pavlyuchenkov's crimes: The lieutenant colonel was a gambling addict and constantly in financial difficulties.
Pavlyuchenkov came from a good family, with an uncle who is considered one of Russia's top neurosurgeons. But he quickly found himself on the wrong path and became addicted to gambling. His first marriage failed. His current girlfriend worked for the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, in a department headed by Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, another key figure in the Politkovskaya murder case.
'Werewolf in Uniform'
In December 2006, Pavlyuchenkov's girlfriend was seriously injured in a fight in the couple's apartment in Lyubertsy. There are two versions of what happened. Some say that an argument erupted after the couple had invited a male prostitute to the apartment for sex games. Others claim that there was an attacker who had showed up at the apartment to collect debts from Pavlyuchenkov, who often accepted jobs without carrying them out.
Pavlyuchenkov constantly needed more money than he was officially earning. To supplement his income, he wangled retirees and alcoholics into selling him their apartments at low prices and then sold them at a profit. He was a "werewolf in a uniform," as Russians call such corrupt public employees.
Two years ago, judges convicted one of Pavlyuchenkov's employees in Lyubertsy to a long prison sentence. The policeman had beaten a businessman to death and burned the body. Pavlyuchenkov was also investigated, but in the end he was only questioned as a witness.
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