MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian prosecutors said on Monday they had detained 10 suspects in the murder of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, but that the killing was masterminded from abroad by anti-Kremlin forces trying to discredit Russia.
The contract-style shooting last year of Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, led to a storm of international condemnation, with critics saying the Kremlin was failing to protect freedom of speech.
Prosecutors had said her killing was probably linked to her reporting. She had been active in exposing abuses by security forces in Russia’s turbulent Chechnya and neighboring regions.
Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika told reporters an investigation showed Politkovskaya had been killed by an organised crime group led by an ethnic Chechen and including at least five serving and former law enforcement officers.
He said the same group may have been involved in two other high-profile murders: the 2004 killing of U.S. reporter Paul Klebnikov and the shooting last year of central bank deputy chief Andrei Kozlov.
But the chief prosecutor said the trail from the Politkovskaya killing, and other crimes, led to Kremlin opponents living in exile abroad.
Asked if he had in mind Boris Berezovsky, a multi-millionaire critic of the Kremlin who lives in London, he smiled and refused to answer the question.
“The person who ordered the (Politkovskaya) killing is abroad,” Chaika told reporters at a news briefing.
“Our investigation has led us to conclude that only people living abroad could be interested in killing Politkovskaya.
“Forces interested in destabilizing the country, changing its constitutional order, in stoking crisis, in a return to the old system where money and oligarchs ruled, in discrediting national leadership, provoking external pressure on the country, could be interested in this crime.
“Our investigations showed that this was not the first such attempt — a number of previous murders were similar provocations.”
Briefing Putin earlier in the day, Chaika said 10 people had been detained on suspicion of involvement in Politkovskaya’s murder. “In the very near future they will be charged with carrying out this grave crime,” he said.
A lieutenant colonel of Moscow’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and a police major helped Politkovskaya’s killers by supplying information about her movements. Another three policemen were also involved, Chaika said.
Chaika said investigators had evidence the same group was involved in the Klebnikov killing. Two men were tried for killing the U.S. reporter but were acquitted after a trial that was criticized by his family.
He also said the group could be linked to the murder of central banker Kozlov, but later appeared to back-track, saying the chief suspect was banker Alexei Frankel, already awaiting trial for the murder.
Politkovskaya was shot during the afternoon of October 7 as she stepped out of her apartment in Moscow to get into the lift. Two of the bullets hit her head. She was 48.
Putin said at the time the murder was a “disgusting crime.” But Politkovskaya’s supporters said she had paid the price for criticizing the Russian authorities. Foreign governments appealed for a thorough investigation.
Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where Politkovskaya worked, gave a cautious welcome to the arrests.
“Naturally, it is premature to speak about the Politkovskaya murder having been solved,” it said. “The people who carried this out, their helpers and the real people who ordered this, must be identified and convicted.
Additional reporting by Chris Baldwin in Moscow