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Jury finds five guilty of Kremlin foe Nemtsov murder

4 min

Moscow (AFP)

A Russian jury on Thursday found all five defendants guilty of organising and carrying out the contract killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, after a trial his allies say failed to unmask the masterminds.

Former deputy prime minister Nemtsov, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down just metres from the Kremlin as he walked home with his girlfriend late on the evening of February 27, 2015.

The brazen murder in central Moscow was the most high-profile political killing in Russia since Putin rose to power some 17 years ago, but Nemtsov's family insists authorities refused to probe people close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who they suspect ordered the hit.

The 12-person jury ruled on its third day of deliberations that defendants Zaur Dadayev, Shadid and Anzor Gubashev, Temirlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhayev -- all ethnic Chechens from Russia's volatile North Caucasus -- carried out the hit as a gang for some $250,000.

Dadayev -- a former officer in an interior ministry battalion in Chechnya -- was found guilty of firing the four fatal shots.

The Gubashev brothers, Eskerkhanov and Bakhayev were found guilty of being accomplices.

The jury's decision was reached by majority vote after they first failed to reach unanimous decisions on the long list of charges against the defendants at the end of ten months of hearings.

The suspects have always denied they were involved in the killing and several retracted initial confessions they said were made under torture.

They are now facing lengthy jail terms, with the judge set to deliver sentencing after prosecutors set out their demands next week.

- Real masterminds untouched? -

While the rulings provide some answers over the killing, Nemtsov's family is adamant that those who ordered the charismatic politician's death have not been identified.

Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna Nemtsova wrote that the case remained "unsolved" even though she agreed that all of the accused, with the exception of Bakhayev, were involved.

"This was not a complete investigation but only an imitation," she posted on Facebook.

"In two years... they could not find the organiser and mastermind of the murder," her lawyer Vadim Prokhorov said. "It's a complete fiasco."

Nemtsov's allies say the evidence clearly shows that those close to Kremlin-loyal Chechen strongman Kadyrov -- or Kadyrov himself -- were actually behind the assassination.

The Chechen leader -- who rules his conflict-scarred region with an iron fist -- has denied all involvement and defended some of the accused.

Nemtsov's family tried and failed to get Kadyrov and some of his top lieutenants, including Dadayev's commander Ruslan Geremeev, questioned.

Investigators only named Geremeev's driver Ruslan Mukhudinov as an organiser and said he offered the suspects 15 million rubles (about $250,000 or 220,000 euros at current rates) for the murder.

Mukhudinov has since fled and investigators said after the verdict that the case against him was still ongoing.

No real motive has ever been offered by authorities as to why the hit on Nemtsov was ordered.

- Echoes of Politkovskaya -

Once one of Russia's most popular politicians, liberal reformer Nemtsov was at one stage seen as a possible successor to former president Boris Yeltsin.

After initially backing Putin when he came to power, Nemtsov soon became one of his fiercest critics. But as the ex-KGB officer cracked down on dissent, Russia's opposition -- and Nemtsov along with it -- became increasingly marginal figures.

At the time of his death aged 55, Nemtsov was probing official Russian involvement in the bloody conflict in east Ukraine. Some supporters insist he was killed to stop his political activities.

The Kremlin called his shooting a "provocation" and spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was for investigators to decide now if the case is at an end.

The murder and subsequent trial have strong echoes of a string of earlier high-profile assassinations that Kremlin critics say have been left unsolved, including the 2006 shooting of anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment building.

Eventually five men -- including four members of the same Chechen family -- were found guilty of the murder, but over a decade later Politkovskaya's family and former colleagues remain convinced the masterminds have not been brought to justice.

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