MOSCOW — A Russian jury said on Thursday that five men suspected of killing opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, were guilty.
But lawyers for Nemtsov’s family and government critics claim the true organizers behind his death were not found during the nine month-long trial. Nemtsov was brazenly killed in February 2015 just meters away from the vermilion walls of the Kremlin.
With a mop of curly hair and an athletic build, Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister in the late 1990s to then-ailing President Boris Yeltsin. He was widely considered at the time to be the leader’s successor.
One of the most recognizable leaders of Russia’s marginalized and fractured Liberal Democrats, Nemtsov criticized Putin in a series of analytical reports detailing the president’s alleged corruption and his coterie of former security agents and personal friends who now serve as top government officials or heads of major companies.
All five defendants were ethnic Chechens with ties to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman. Nemtsov, along with human rights groups and critics, have for years accused Kadyrov of pocketing government funds, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture of his opponents.
The jury also found them guilty of illegal possession of firearms. A judge will deliver a verdict after deliberation. The defendants face at least eight years in jail.
One more suspected accomplice was killed in Chechnya while being detained, and another suspected organizer is still at large.
All the defendants pleaded not guilty and said their earlier testimony, in which they confessed to organizing or aiding in the killing of Nemtsov, was extracted under pressure.
The suspected killer, a decorated officer named Zaur Dadayev who fought against Chechen separatists, was arrested days after the 2015 slaying. He told investigators in March 2015 that he had shot Nemtsov for “anti-Islamic statements.”
Kadyrov called Dadayev a “true patriot of Russia” and claimed that “one has to look for the traces of the crime not in Chechnya, but in Ukraine and then further, in the USA,” according to his 2015 Instagram post. He claimed that the slaying was organized by a former Chechen separatist who fought against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Investigators said that another decorated Chechen officer named Ruslan Mukhudinov, along with “other unidentified persons,” allegedly hired the defendants in September 2014 and paid them “at least 15 million rubles” ($240,000).
The defendants purchased two cars, burner phones and a pistol, and followed Nemtsov for about six months, tracking his whereabouts and comments in media reports and social networking pages, investigators said.
On Feb. 28, 2015, the defendants spent some 10 hours in a car parked outside Nemtsov’s apartment in central Moscow. They drove after him to a restaurant near the Kremlin, where Nemtsov and his companion, a Ukrainian model, had dinner. As the two walked to cross the Moskva river, Dadayev shot Nemtsov in the back six times, killing the 55-year-old politician on the spot, investigators said.
Nemtsov family’s lawyers said that the court failed to present surveillance footage from dozens of cameras that operate around the Kremlin 24/7. The court also ignored their requests to summon Kadyrov as a witness.
For years before his killing, Nemtsov was lambasted on Kremlin-controlled television networks, which called him a “Western agent” and claimed he received money from the U.S. to organize a coup against Putin.
Putin has described the killing as a “provocation,” and told Nemtsov’s septuagenarian mother the killers would be found and punished.
But Moscow authorities refused to rename the bridge where Nemtsov was killed after him and they routinely send janitors there late at night to remove flowers, candles and his portraits.