MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two ultranationalists were convicted on Thursday by a Russian jury over the murders of a human rights lawyer and a journalist near the Kremlin.
The January 2009 shooting of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a reporter for an opposition paper, sparked a global outcry and fueled criticism that authorities do not do enough to hunt down those who target activists and journalists.
The Moscow jury voted 7-5, the slimmest possible margin, to convict Nikita Tikhonov of the murders of Markelov and Baburova and Yevgeniya Khasis as an accessory to the murder of Markelov. A majority is required for conviction in Russian jury trials.
Tikhonov, who turned 30 last year, could be sentenced to life in prison, and the jury said neither he nor Khasis, who is in her mid-20s, deserved leniency. Sentencing hearings begin next week.
Markelov and Baburova were walking together on a street in an upscale neighborhood after a news conference when they were fatally shot at close range with an automatic pistol.
Both victims were Russians, not the natives of the Caucasus and Central Asia who are often targeted in hate attacks by Russian racists. Markelov had represented the mother of an anti-fascist campaigner who he said was killed by neo-Nazis.
Prosecutors said Tikhonov and Khasis were members of an ultranationalist group. The jury found they felt “intolerance and ideological hatred” for Markelov because he represented “victims and defendants holding anti-fascist ideologies.”
The defendants shared jokes with each other in a glass box in the courtroom before the jury retired. Khasis laid her head on Tikhonov’s shoulder and smiled as the verdict was read.
Markelov had gained prominence when he contested the early release of a former Russian tank commander imprisoned for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in the Caucasus republic of Chechnya, where rights groups have accused federal forces of abusing civilians during two wars against separatist rebels.
Baburova was one of a number of Russian journalists whose killings in recent years have darkened Russia’s reputation -- among them Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic who wrote for Novaya Gazeta and was gunned down in Moscow in 2006.
The killings highlighted the threat from ultranationalist movements that have been gaining ground and boosting their membership numbers in recent years.
Racial violence exploded in Moscow in December when some 7,000 soccer fans and nationalists chanting racist slogans demonstrated near Red Square and attacked passersby who appeared to be non-Slavic.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Steve Gutterman