On Oct. 7, 2006, a man wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes rushed out of a Moscow apartment block on Lesnaya Street. In the building's elevator, he left behind a dead woman, killed with several gunshots. The woman is Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who had made a name for herself with incisive reporting about human rights abuses in the Russian province of Chechnya and fearless criticism of the Kremlin.
Many, including the legal team of Politkovskaya's children as well as her former colleagues at the Novaya Gazeta, the journal where she had been working at the time of her death, have long since come to the conclusion that the man wearing the baseball cap is Rustam Makhmudov. Russian authorities also believe that Makhmudov fired the deadly bullets at Politkovskaya; and not long after the murder, his two brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim, were arrested. But Rustam remained at large.
On Tuesday, Russian authorities announced that Rustam has finally been taken into custody. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top criminal investigative body, said that the elder brother was arrested in a Chechen town just west of the regional capital Grozny on Monday night. He is soon to be transferred to Moscow.
Tired of Life on the Lam?
Finally, after five years, the man who is considered the primary suspect in the murder of Polikovskaya has been captured. Finally, it would seem, Moscow may be able to clear up one of the most notorious crimes in the country's recent history. Similar to the case of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Politkovskaya murder has tarnished the image of Vladimir Putin. Now prime minister, Putin was president when the journalist was killed -- and she was one of his staunchest critics.
For years, Rustum Makhmudov occupied a leading spot on international lists of most-wanted criminals. Still, Novaya Gazeta reported that he was nonetheless able to freely travel abroad. "It will hopefully also now be cleared up who helped him get his hands on forged travel documents," the paper's deputy editor-in-chief, Sergei Sokolov, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Recently, it was even thought that Makhmudov was in Western Europe. In November 2010, police in the Belgian city of Liege staged a search for him. In the end, however, he was arrested in his parents' house in Chechnya. Murad Musayev, a lawyer who represents Dzhabrail Makhmudov, said that Rustum intended to turn himself in, having tired of life on the lam. "The investigating authorities have long known where he was hiding," he said according to Russian media.
Prosecutors believe that the Makhmudov brothers planned and executed Politkovskaya's murder together. Brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov are alleged to have spied on the reporter before allegedly guiding their brother to the victim's house. But prosecutors were never able to prove that. The two brothers already stood trial in 2009 as accomplices in the murder, but they were acquitted by a jury. At the time, lawyers representing Politkovskaya's family even welcomed the acquittal. They argued that the work done in the case by police and prosecutors had been shoddy.
They had been unable to prove the origin of the murder weapon or even the precise time of Politkovskaya's death. Prosecutors suffered an additional embarrassment when a CD containing the data of a video they intended to show as evidence during the trial went missing.
Prosecutors have said that the capture of the person suspected of firing the deadly shot would be a prerequisite for any new trial. The editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, is hoping Makhmudov's arrest can help to shed light on the truth behind the murder. That is far from certain, though, given that the inconsistencies of the first trial will not simply disappear with the start of a second one. For example, during the pleas in the first trial, prosecutors no longer mentioned the accusation that Makhmudov had been the murdered because the man with the baseball cap seen in the video recording from Oct. 7, 2006, was clearly significantly taller than the 1.65 meters (5 feet 5 inches), that are discussed in Rustam Makhmudov's official documents.
Media reports suggest the murderer was paid $2 million for the act. Yet it still remains entirely unclear who was behind the slaying. "Generally, the killers involved in such crimes never have any direct contact with the person commissioning it," said Sokolov of the Novaya Gazeta. And even if they are able to prove that Makhmudov did act as the killer, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya will be far from resolved or atoned for.