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A Guilty Verdict in Nemtsov Trial, But Impunity Reigns

On Thursday, the 12-person jury sitting at the Moscow District Military Court rendered its verdict in modern Russia’s most high-profile political assassination. By a majority vote, the jurors found five men—all of them linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov—guilty of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. Zaur Dadayev, a Kadyrov associate and, at the time of the murder, an officer serving in Russia’s Interior Ministry, was convicted of pulling the trigger. The sentence will be handed down in early July.

The verdict followed a two-year investigation and trial that left more questions than it gave answers. From the start, the authorities went to great lengths to avoid any discussion of motive. Russia’s Investigative Committee refused to invoke Article 277 of the Criminal Code—“encroachment on the life of a statesman or a public figure,” instead qualifying the assassination of the former deputy prime minister, incumbent regional legislator, and leader of the opposition as a common murder. Indeed, those questions that attempted to probe the political motives surrounding the murder, asked by Vadim Prokhorov who represented Nemtsov’s family, were repeatedly disallowed by the judge. Despite Prokhorov’s continued requests—and despite obvious links between those accused and the Kadyrov regime—the Chechen strongman was not even formally questioned. Neither was General Viktor Zolotov, commander of the Russian National Guard (formerly of the Interior Ministry’s interior troops) in whose command Dadayev was serving at the time of the murder, and who is widely considered to be a go-between between Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov.

Both the investigators and the court proved unable—or unwilling—to go beyond the perpetrators to pursue those who masterminded and ordered the killing. The only person named as an organizer in the assassination at the foot of the Kremlin Wall was a Chechen driver who remains at large. Initial attempts by investigators to name Ruslan Geremeyev, another Kadyrov associate and Interior Ministry officer, as an organizer were (twice) vetoed by General Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee. As for the masterminds, no one is even pretending to look.

“We saw a trial where it is forbidden to talk about the substance,” noted opposition politician Lev Shlosberg. “The court is investigating a political assassination without any questions about politics. This trial has done everything to make sure society did not get answers to the most important questions: who ordered [the assassination] and why. This shows that there are people who know the answers to these questions. And they are guarding them as a military secret of the state.”

“This was not a full-scale investigation but an imitation,” said Zhanna Nemtsova, the slain leader’s daughter. She has welcomed the guilty verdict for the perpetrators, but—in the absence of named organizers, masterminds, and motive—considers the case to remain unsolved and vows to “continue fighting to establish the truth.” So does Prokhorov, her lawyer. In this, they will be helped by Lithuanian lawmaker Emanuelis Zingeris, recently appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as a special rapporteur for the Nemtsov murder case, with a mandate to consider all aspects of the investigation and trial. Hours after the verdict, a message of support also came from the other side of the Atlantic. “Vladimir Putin and his thugs may have succeeded in taking Boris’s life, but they did not silence him,” US Senator John McCain, who knew Nemtsov and worked with him to pass the groundbreaking Magnitsky Act, said in a statement. “His memory, and the cause for which he gave his life, lives on in the hearts and minds of true Russian patriots, tens of thousands of whom have been taking to the streets in recent months to fight for truth and liberty for the Russian people. Inspired by Boris’s example, I know that someday they will succeed.”

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