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Russia Turns Deaf Ear as Killing Cries for Justice


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Only one spectator showed up for the final hearing in the killing of Magomed Yevloyev. He was a broad-beamed, ruddy-faced man in a carefully pressed black suit, and once in the courtroom he removed his tall fur hat, set it on the bench beside him and waited for a chance to speak.

Sunlight streamed in the window, bouncing off the white walls, but the old man had brought a heaviness with him into the room. When the time came, Yakhya Yevloyev stood and recited a litany of evidence not gathered ­ witnesses not interviewed, threads left dangling ­ that might have led to a murder conviction in his son’s death.

The room went silent out of respect for the man’s loss, and for a moment it seemed as if the process could rewind 18 months to the beginning, when his son, an opposition leader in the southern republic of Ingushetia, was hustled into a police car and shot through the head at point-blank range.

Back then, in August 2008, it was a crime so outrageous that it seemed to demand action. Magomed Yevloyev was openly feuding with the region’s leader, Murat M. Zyazikov, when the two men happened to board the same flight from Moscow. Barely half an hour after the police escorted Mr. Yevloyev, 36, off the plane, he was dropped off at a hospital with an execution-style wound.

Death is often murky in the violent borderland of the Russian north Caucasus, but this one seemed different. Protests broke out in Ingushetia, and Western leaders pressed Moscow to punish those responsible. Even the Kremlin appeared to feel the political pressure: within two months, President Dmitri A. Medvedev removed both Mr. Zyazikov and his interior minister.

Almost two years later, the case serves as a lesson in how the legal process can be strangled. In Russia, the prosecutor has long served as the guard dog of the powerful. Peter the Great envisioned the office as “the czar’s eye,” and Stalin forged it into a brutal instrument of control.

Though post-Soviet reforms pared away that power, prosecutors still come under direct political pressure and rarely turn their scrutiny upward. In this case, federal investigators reporting to Moscow took over and blocked any inquiry that could have pointed to senior officials.

Yakhya urged investigators to pursue the case as a murder, but an examination of the legal records shows that possibility was not explored. Instead, the state opened a case of negligent homicide, a mild charge used in medical malpractice cases, and prosecutors requested a sentence of two years. By comparison, defendants can receive five-year sentences for distributing pirated software.

The official explanation of what happened took shape an hour and five minutes after Magomed Yevloyev died on a hospital bed. His death, investigators wrote, resulted from a bizarre accident.

‘Point Blank’

When Magomed Yevloyev arrived at the hospital that day, he was in a so-called deep coma ­ unresponsive to touch, sound or light ­ and a doctor measured his blood pressure at zero. A coroner pronounced him dead at 2:55 p.m., describing the gunshot wound to his head, canting slightly upward through his right parietal lobe, as “point blank.”

At 4 p.m., an investigator in the regional prosecutor’s office opened a negligent homicide case, stating that Mr. Yevloyev was being transported for questioning in a bombing case when he tried to wrestle a Kalashnikov rifle from the officer to his right. The investigator had not spoken to the three officers who were in the car ­ he had just read statements provided by the Ingush Interior Ministry ­ and his explanation raised more questions than it answered.

“Measures were taken to suppress that attempt,” he wrote, “during the course of which Mr. Yevloyev received a gunshot wound from an accidental shot from a police weapon.”

This story was fleshed out over the next two weeks, but there were problems with it. The suspect, Ibragim D. Yevloyev (he shared a common surname with the victim, but they were not relatives), was not an officer who would normally transport a witness, but a guard for Ingushetia’s interior minister, who was at the airport to greet the president. And beginning with his first interview, at 4:25 p.m. that day, he was at a loss to explain how the accident had happened.

At a crime-scene re-enactment 13 days later, the suspect told forensic experts from the prosecutor’s office that he had not pulled the trigger. He said he had been aiming a 9-millimeter Stechkin pistol out of a window to his left, anticipating an attack by armed supporters of Magomed Yevloyev. When he wheeled around toward the two men grappling over the Kalashnikov, he said, Mr. Yevloyev reared back and hit the Stechkin, causing it to fire.

If investigators checked for Mr. Yevloyev’s fingerprints on the Kalashnikov, they never presented any evidence of it. And if Mr. Yevloyev reared his head back and hit the gun, it is not clear how the bullet hit him on the flat side of the head, an inch above his left ear. But a transcript of the crime-scene re-enactment shows the forensic experts did not press the matter:

Specialist Osenchugova: “Could your gun have possibly touched the head of the victim when you made that sudden turn?”

Ibragim Yevloyev: “The gun shot when I turned because of the fight. I can’t show exactly how it happened, it happened very quickly.”

Specialist Osenchugova: “Do you remember if the victim’s head, perhaps, leaned toward a headrest, or, maybe, bowed down?”

Ibragim Yevloyev: “I can’t explain the details.”

“Later,” the transcript reads, “the suspect was asked to show with a laser pointer the trajectory of the gunshot. The suspect refused to do it, saying that for him the difference between a laser pointer and a real gun was fundamental.”

At that point, the prosecution experts took the laser and re-enacted the gunshot themselves. The investigator asked if anyone had questions, but no one did. Asked whether the officer’s account was plausible, Specialist Osenchugova said she considered it “possible not to rule out this mechanism of injury.”

And with that, the re-enactment was over.

A Political Enemy

Yakhya Yevloyev, 67, did not expect prosecutors to represent his interests. Under Russian law, victims hire their own counsel to cross-examine witnesses and testify in court. This gives them a formal voice, but not an equal one. In this case, Yakhya and his lawyers were alone in arguing that his son had been murdered.

There was no shortage of evidence that Magomed Yevloyev was viewed as a political enemy. After several years as a bare-knuckled assistant prosecutor ­ he left the job after he was accused of participating in a prisoner’s murder ­ Mr. Yevloyev founded the Web site Ingushetiya.ru, which criticized Mr. Zyazikov and rallied its readers to protest. After filing criminal cases against the site on extremism charges, prosecutors in June 2008 won a decision to close it. The site’s top editor applied for political asylum in France.

During the flight to Ingushetia from Moscow, Mr. Yevloyev and Mr. Zyazikov had found themselves in close quarters for the first time in years. A few weeks later, Mr. Zyazikov told a reporter from Ren TV, a Russian television channel, that he did not even know that Mr. Yevloyev was on the plane with him that day and had no idea who killed him. But Yakhya’s lawyers said their history raised the question of whether the men had a confrontation, and whether the president made the call that set the detention in motion.

Yakhya’s team also had a stroke of luck: a police investigator came forward to say he had been ordered to falsify testimony. Jambulat K. Shankhoyev had authorized police officers to bring Magomed in for questioning that day ­ but, Mr. Shankhoyev acknowledged, he later discovered that he had been asked to do so after Mr. Yevloyev was already in the police car. “I understood I had been set up,” the investigator wrote in a statement to Ingushetia’s president and prosecutor. When the investigator confronted his superiors about this, he wrote, he was told to keep quiet.

Nevertheless, investigators rejected motions filed by Yakhya’s lawyers one after another. They offered circular logic: If the preliminary investigation pointed to an accident, what legal basis was there for gathering evidence for a murder case?

So there would be no deposition of Mr. Zyazikov, or of passengers on the airplane who might have seen the two men interact, or of Mr. Shankhoyev, the investigator charging a cover-up. Police phone records would not be subpoenaed to trace the officers’ conversations with officials before and after the killing. Yakhya’s lawyers would not be allowed to be present during a crime scene re-enactment, leaving them powerless to point out its weaknesses.

Yuri N. Turygin, the regional prosecutor in Ingushetia, said he prayed Magomed Yevloyev would survive the gunshot wound, aware of the turmoil that would result if he died. Yet he suggested that Mr. Yevloyev, with his history of defiance, probably provoked his captors as he was being driven to police headquarters, knowing that some of his supporters were in pursuit.

“In my view, what caused his behavior was his character,” Mr. Turygin said in an interview. “He is a former prosecutor, he enjoyed some authority, and that dictated his behavior. It was probably within the framework of the law, but it was on the edge of an insult. He could humiliate a police officer ­ he could say, ‘They are running after you, and when they catch up with you, they will show you.’ “

It was Mr. Turygin’s office that initially opened an investigation into negligent homicide. The case was taken out of his hands a day later, when it was transferred to the federal investigative committee, based in Moscow. In any case, Mr. Turygin said that if Yakhya Yevloyev had a compelling argument that a murder charge should have been pursued, the judges had leeway to send the case back to the prosecutor.

“The court did not consider it convincing and didn’t return the case,” Mr. Turygin said. “It’s the court’s assessment. I cannot criticize the judges’ actions.”

In response to detailed questions from The New York Times, a spokesman for the federal investigative committee wrote that legal analysis of the evidence was “not within the authority of investigative organs,” and suggested that questions be directed to judges.

Magomed S. Daurbekov, the chairman of Ingushetia’s Council of Judges, said the blame should fall on investigators, because judges were constrained by the evidence they compiled. He said the case should have been opened as a murder case and downgraded later if the evidence supported only a lesser charge, a procedure that might have reassured the victims that a full investigation had taken place. (In the United States, prosecutors usually bring the highest charges they believe the evidence will support, and judges, as in Russia, cannot revise them upward.)

In any case, Mr. Daurbekov said, it was out of the judges’ hands.

“It is not possible to say, ‘Why did the investigator do it this way?’ ” he said. “We cannot give our opinions on those matters. All we can say in this conversation is that it is on the conscience of those who investigated the case.”

A Final Hearing

In December 2009, Ibragim Yevloyev was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in a prison colony. Yakhya appealed, and by March, when the case reached the Ingush Supreme Court in Magas, the capital, he was the last person hanging on the result. He stepped out into the hallway, nerves strung tight, when the three justices began deliberating.

He believed in the law. Conservative by nature, he had ordered his firebrand son to give up opposition activities. After his death, unnamed “friends of the deceased” publicly declared a blood feud against 13 officials, but Yakhya said he argued strenuously against it, rejecting a tradition that courses powerfully through the Caucasus. He repeated his answer like a prayer: Let the state punish them.

This was the last chance. In the brilliant light of the Supreme Court, he begged the judges to send the case back to the prosecutors on the basis of its flaws. Indeed the judges had identified a flaw, but it was not one that he expected. As he sat in stunned silence, the judges announced that prosecutors had overcharged Ibragim Yevloyev, and reduced his sentence from two years in a prison camp to two years’ house arrest.

So that was that. When one judge ­ an acquaintance from his hometown ­ crossed the room to touch Yakhya on the shoulder, he stalked wordlessly out onto the street and into a waiting car. His dignity seemed trampled.

“What happened here, I couldn’t have foreseen it,” he said later, when the words came. “It was a mockery, not only of me, but of all those who believed in the fulfillment of the law. It was a demonstration that the law can be bent.

“You can do whatever you want,” he said. “Steal, murder, kidnap. Whatever you want.”

The more radical voices in his son’s circle said Yakhya had been foolish to look to the courts for vindication in the first place. Magomed Khazbiyev, 30, one of the opposition leaders waiting at the airport on the day Magomed Yevloyev was killed, glinted with anger on the day of the decision.

“The judicial system in Ingushetia doesn’t exist now, and it never did,” Mr. Khazbiyev said. “Officially, yes, there is some judicial process. But the blood feud ­ whether or not there is Russian law, whether Russia exists, even if Russia disappears, or the whole outside world disappears ­ the blood feud in Ingushetia will exist until the last Ingush dies.”

There is no indication that Moscow wanted the case handled differently. Mr. Zyazikov ­ a retired lieutenant general in the Federal Security Service ­ works in Moscow now. When he was removed as Ingushetia’s president, he became an adviser to President Medvedev. (He refused, through a spokesman, to answer questions from The New York Times for this article.) His former interior minister has also had a soft landing, and is now working as a senior investigator for the Russian Interior Ministry. Through an intermediary, he also declined to comment.

The policeman, Ibragim Yevloyev, remains under house arrest, though his lawyer says he is still a target in a blood feud, and reluctant to step outside for fear of being shot.

But in the end, none of these men will make the final decision on how to define justice in this incendiary part of Russia. That choice arches into the future ­ someday falling to Magomed Yevloyev’s impish, dark-haired children, who will eventually have to decide whether to put their faith in the state.

They are still in elementary school, and do not see much of their father’s old allies from the opposition. Their mother hopes to protect them from the politics and violence that swallowed up her husband. As far as they know, their father died in a car accident.

Source: New York Times
By Ellen Barry
Published: 3 June 2010


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