MOSCOW A Moscow court could halt the retrial of three men for the murder of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya after prosecutors agreed on Wednesday the case should be merged with an investigation into who ordered the hit.
Politkovskaya, who published exposes on rights abuses and corruption in Russia's southern turbulent Chechnya region, was gunned down outside her apartment bloc in 2006.
The journalist's killing sparked outrage in the West, which saw the slaying of a vocal critic as a key test of the Kremlin's resolve to protect freedom of speech.
The three suspects currently on trial were acquitted by a jury in February of being accomplices in the murder.
But a higher court ordered a retrial, a decision criticized by Politkovskaya's family, who on Wednesday petitioned for the case to be sent back to state prosecutors.
Politkovskaya family lawyers were surprised when state prosecutors backed the application.
"It makes it more likely that our request will be accepted, but we have to wait and see," said Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer representing Politkovskaya's family.
If the trial judge rules in favor of the petition on Friday, the case would be merged with an investigation into the person who ordered the killing. The man accused of pulling the trigger also remains at large.
Defense lawyer Murad Musayev said he also supported the request, saying an additional investigation would help clear the name of the defendants.
Politkovskaya's slaying tarnished Russia's image but the Kremlin has always denied any involvement in her death, saying it was an attempt to discredit Russia.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president at the time of her killing, said Politkovskaya had "minimal influence" on Russian society.
But President Dmitry Medvedev, cultivating his image as a liberal, has been more outspoken in his support for openness and civil society since he came to power last May.
He used an interview with Politkovskaya's opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April to chide the trade-off between prosperity and freedom which critics say was the hallmark of Putin's rule.
However, analysts say they have so far seen very few substantive changes to Russia's legal system which Medvedev has pledged to improve.
"There is no evidence yet that it has led to a better quality of investigation," said Maria Lipman, a political analyst with the U.S.-funded Carnegie Center in Moscow.
(Writing by Conor Humphries; editing by Jon Boyle)