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Kremlin Hits Back After Forbes Editor Paul Klebnikov’s Alleged Killer and Others Denied U.S. Visas
By Richard Behar via Forbes
Paul Klebnikov was shot nine times, once for each year that his murder has gone unsolved. It was back in 2004, on a warm July night, when the American editor of Forbes-Russia left his Moscow office for the last time. He had no idea that he’d been shadowed for perhaps two weeks. A mysterious car with tinted windows was waiting for him, and so was a semiautomatic Russian Makarov pistol.
The shooter? A 30-year-old Chechen man named Kazbek Dukuzov, according to Russian prosecutors.
Yesterday, Dukuzov’s name appeared on a list of 18 notorious Russians who are blacklisted from entering America, and whose U.S. assets (if any) are being frozen. Now, in an eye-for-an-eye counterattack, the Kremlin today banned an equal number (18) of Americans from entering Russia – including former Bush Administration officials, retired military commanders, several current FBI/DEA agents, a prominent federal judge (Jed Rakoff), and one of the country’s most highly-regarded U.S. Attorneys (Preet Bharara). Russia’s Foreign Ministry then blasted the White House for what it called “blatant blackmail” and “outright diktat,” as well as triggering a “war of lists” and “powerful blow” to bilateral relations.
It’s probably safe to say that, even before yesterday’s announcement, nobody on that joint Treasury-State Department list (including Dukuzov) could have stepped foot on U.S. soil anyway. But banned-entry lists are rarely made public. In this case, a law that went into effect in December – the “Magnitsky Act” — requires names to be disclosed as a way to punish Russians implicated in human rights violations.
The Obama list seems solid, consisting of some of the worst scoundrels walking the streets of Russia today. In contrast, the Putin list seems designed just to mock Washington. (To be fair to the Kremlin, it could be argued that one listee, John Yoo, should perhaps be blocked from enjoying the Bolshoi Ballet anytime soon. A Justice Department probe in 2010 concluded that Yoo, a Bush Administration lawyer, had committed “intentional professional misconduct” for trashing the Geneva Conventions with his ‘torture memos’ blessing the waterboarding of suspected terrorists. Other than that, the Kremlin list would have made the best Soviet propagandists proud.)
Sixteen of the 18 Russians on Obama’s list are connected to a case involving the persecution and murder of an anti-corruption lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in 2009 in a Russian prison, after being arrested by the police officers he was investigating for tax fraud. The remaining two names are Dukuzov, as well as Letscha Bogatirov, a Chechen man accused of killing a critic of Chechnya’s Moscow-backed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov.
(Note: Kadyrov himself has been personally implicated in the 2006 murder of American-born Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was digging up lots of dirt about him in Chechnya. He has long denied the allegation and pins the murder instead on the recently-deceased Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who, in turn — stay with this — has long been a prime suspect for masterminding the murder of Klebnikov. And that’s just for starters.)
Today’s retaliatory move by the Putin Administration is undoubtedly meant, in part, to deflect attention and embarrassment from the country’s inept and corrupt criminal justice system. But with Dukuzov on Washington’s list, the Kremlin may end up embarrassing itself further with its huffing and puffing. That’s because Dukuzov is the only individual on the list who the Russian government itself has desperately tried hard to pin a murder on – despite the fact that he was (entirely unexpectedly) acquitted by a jury, and then allowed to slip out of the country before prosecutors could file an appeal. Dukuzov, now age 39, is believed today to be sitting in a prison in the United Arab Emirates for crimes unrelated to the killing of Klebnikov.
Given that Russia’s government has spent massive resources trying to nail Dukuzov for shooting Klebnikov, will President Putin step up the plate and concede that at least he belongs on America’s list? Don’t count on it. With the Putin government now attacking members of Congress behind the Magnitsky Act as “Russophobic,” the rhetoric will rule for now. “We hear various things from the Russians,” a State Department official said yesterday when the Magnitsky Act list was revealed. “I’ve learned not to try to take action based on what you think the Russian reaction might be. I think it’s better to do what’s in the law and what’s right and what reflects American interests and American values. And on human rights, then you let the chips fall where they may. We’ve played this one straight; we haven’t tried to game it.”
Part of the Putin blusterfest is because he’s long been too proud to acknowledge that his government lacks the ability and the political will (they go hand in hand, in every nation) to solve high-profile murder cases. For example: 20 journalists have been contract-murdered just since Putin came to power in 2000, yet only two of those cases have been solved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the Klebnikov case, while the search for the mastermind of the murder continues, the Dukuzov arrest was one of the few times that Russian investigators arrested an alleged shooter of a reporter and accumulated an impressive mountain of evidence against him.
What happened after that arrest provides an immaculate picture of what’s ailing Russia’s criminal justice system. Churchill, who called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” would not have been disappointed by the Klebnikov investigation. It has been a decade-long, Russian-style merry-go-round — with constant fits and starts, inscrutability, subterfuge, absurdity, farce. In fact, it reads more like a “My Cousin Vinny” comedy script than a non-fiction murder case. Only there’s nothing funny about it.
In December of 2004, five months after Klebnikov was murdered, the Belarusian security agency (KGB) arrested Dukuzov and a second Chechen named Musa Vakhaev (a.k.a. Vakhayev). They were extradited to Russia to stand trial for Paul’s murder — Dukuzov as the alleged triggerman, and Vakhaev as the alleged getaway driver. Six months later, Russia’s Prosecutor General announced that the case was solved and that the mastermind of the hit was a fugitive rebel leader (and onetime Moscow crime boss) named Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev. Putin himself met with the Klebnikov family at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, where he assured them that Nukhaev [a.k.a. Noukhayev] would be captured and that he [Putin] would personally oversee the case.
Not only was Nukhaev never found, but there were reports that he died before Paul was killed. At any rate, while the alleged manhunt for Nukhaev was taking place, both Dukuzov and his sidekick [Vakhaev] were put on trial in 2006. There was just one problem: The trial was closed to the press and public, with all the participants under a gag order imposed by the judge. Nonetheless, a reconstruction of the case from sources revealed how hard it is to find someone guilty of murder in today’s Russia.
Here are a few excerpts from that May 2006 Forbes exposé, which may be worth resharing in light of the Magnitsky list:
For starters, the trial was sealed to protect sensitive trial evidence and to protect jurors and witnesses from intimidation. A lawyer for the Klebnikov family had proposed that the courtroom be closed only for those moments when confidential evidence was presented (just as the “in camera” system works in the West), but the idea was rejected by the government. As for the intimidation of participants, that concern was valid, as even legal representatives of the Klebnikov family say they suffered harassing phone calls and smashed-in car windows.
But Russian officials hardly bent over backward to protect anybody. The jurors were never sequestered, and some were even spotted by a court officer riding the subways alone to the courthouse. Moreover, the jurors were required to pass through a room in the court building that was teeming with the hostile glares of the defendants’ relatives–a scene about as intimidating as possible. It didn’t help that the trial had initially been delayed by a bomb threat, as well as the impaneling of a new judge and jury for reasons that remain hazy.
The prosecution, portraying the defendants as part of a criminal tribe specializing in contract murders, had charged them with a series of violent crimes. Thus, they were acquitted not only of the murder of Klebnikov but also of the attempted murder of a businessman, who survived to identify Dukuzov in the courtroom as the shooter. They were also acquitted of a 1997 attack on a woman who testified that it was Dukuzov who held the knife to her throat and also threatened her family. And they were acquitted of the murder of a former deputy prime minister of Chechnya–it took place two weeks before Klebnikov was killed–despite a witness who placed one of the defendants in a restaurant where the minister and his wife were dining shortly before the murder.
A reasonable observer may wonder: Just what does it take to find someone guilty of a crime in Moscow? Curiously, it was the same eight (of 12) jurors who voted to clear the defendants of every count. One court observer says that guilty verdicts seemed all but assured until the mood in the room shifted several days before the verdict. The defense seemed to rest–literally–reading newspapers in the courtroom, appearing almost disinterested, making fewer motions, rarely leaping up to object as they had during the first part of the trial. The defendants themselves suddenly brimmed with an aggressive confidence, as if the verdict was in the bag. Indeed, one juror was even spotted waving to the defendants. Not surprisingly, jury tampering is suspected, and the case was appealed to the Russian Supreme Court on Monday. (Double jeopardy rules don’t exist in Russia, and 25% to 50% of criminal cases are reversed on appeal.) The lead prosecutor has spoken of “gross violations” of procedural laws but won’t elaborate publicly.
Until and unless proved otherwise, we must conclude that the jurors genuinely voted with their consciences and that the defendants–now free men–are innocent. But the prosecutors are not letting this one go. Nor should they.
For the Klebnikov portion of the case, a full-time unit of eight top government investigators had amassed an impressive dossier of documents and witnesses. (Specifically, there were 35 case volumes, of which about 12 were devoted just to Klebnikov.) Cellphone records as thick as a New York City phone book placed the defendants in the vicinity of Klebnikov’s murder for a two-week period before the hit–never before or afterward, and never on weekends–suggesting that Klebnikov was under surveillance at his Forbes Russia office.
At one point in the trial, Dukuzov testified that he never had or owned a gun in his life, at which point prosecutors played a video of him holding one. As for Vakhaev, he reportedly kept changing his story to investigators about whether he was at or near the crime scene.
Two witnesses identified a car–a Russian Vaz-2115–as having cut Klebnikov off on the street before a shooter behind the driver’s seat fired his weapon. Such a car was found ditched nearby, with prints and lint samples matching Vakhaev and Dukuzov, respectively.
One hole in the case was that the prosecutors couldn’t establish clearly who did the actual shooting versus the driving. They believe that Dukuzov was the sole shooter, even though his prints were not in the car. But it’s that kind of gap–typical of even strong murder cases in the West–that gave some outside experts confidence that the Russian government hadn’t cooked up a prefabricated show trial. It’s a view that I share.
In short, this was as solid a circumstantial case as any that a Western prosecutor would feel confident bringing to a jury. But it was just that–”circumstantial”–a concept that may be hard for Russian jurors to accept, particularly given the public’s lack of faith in government institutions, a point Russian President Vladimir Putin himself made in his state of the union address last week…
So what happened in the years that followed, after the acquittal? There was evidence of jury tampering, and arbitrary changing of judges. Over a four-month period in 2006, the Klebnikov family was denied a transcript of the trial and other key documents. On top of that, a local judge failed to forward motions to appeal to the Supreme Court, as required by law. Two postponements occurred.
Meanwhile, the defendants were not held in pre-trial detention (almost as if they were invited to flee). Dukuzov completely vanished. And when the defendants failed to appear at a hearing in 2007, the trial was suspended due to their absence. Are we laughing yet? Crying.
At one point in 2008, Russia closed the entire case because prosecutors couldn’t find the defendants, but the Klebnikov family was not notified for five months. (After they protested, it was reopened.) And then, in 2009, after five years of declining repeated U.S. government offers to assist, the Putin Administration relented and allowed the FBI into the investigation. But the agency’s access to information was too limited to make a difference.
And today? The case supposedly grinds on, until it’s off, and then on again. But Dukuzov and Vakhaev have never been retried. Aside from Nukhaev — the fugitive (if even alive) Chechen warlord — another prime suspect for the title of mastermind of Paul’s murder has long been Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, yet another fugitive from justice. His death last month in London from what appears to be suicide may help shed more light on Paul’s case. “The Russian government is convinced he killed Paul,” a brother, Peter Klebnikov, told Forbes last month. “It’s conceivable… But we have seen no evidence from the Russian side.” But what about Nukhaev? There is some evidence that Paul, in the months before his murder, was gathering information that tied Nukhaev and Berezovsky together in crimes. Whether they conspired to have him killed, or whether the mastermind is someone else entirely, remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure: Whoever Russian officials ultimately lay the rap on, they will have to ante up all the evidence or nobody will believe them. “They almost never solve any of these high-profile crimes,” says retired FBI agent William Kinane, who served as legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994 to 1999. “There’s about six or seven, sometimes as many as ten layers of people involved in the chain of a contract killing. It’s almost like an espionage case. You don’t know who the next guy is or who he’s working for, or who’s paying him.”
The killers, Kinane adds, “are smart and they have it down to a science. And the cops are usually behind them, using Soviet era legal procedures to convict modern criminals. It’s amazing. I have a lot of colleagues in Russia who are honest, hard-working cops, but somehow their efforts get stymied.”
Nearly eight years ago, on the first anniversary of Paul’s murder, a group of investigative reporters– joined by Forbes, Bloomberg, The Economist and Vanity Fair – launched a media alliance called Project Klebnikov. Its mission: To encourage investigative reporters to pick up where Paul left off, and to keep a fire burning under the murder case.
Perhaps with Kazbek Dukuzov named on the Magnitsky List, we can inch a little closer to solving this hideous mystery.
Richard Behar is the Contributing Editor, Investigations, for Forbes magazine. Since 2005, he has served as director of Project Klebnikov. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org