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Five unanswered questions from the Boris Nemtsov murder trial An editorial by Meduza

Meduza
Alexey Filippov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

On July 3, a Moscow court sentenced five men convicted of murdering Boris Nemtsov — Zaur Dadayev, the brothers Anzor and Shadid Gubashev, Terirlan Eskerkhanov, and Khamzat Bakhayev — to prison terms ranging from 11 to 20 years. This is the final word on the official version of Boris Nemtsov’s death, finding that Nemtsov was murdered for a simple cash reward, without any ideological or political motivations. According to this version, the murder was organized by Ruslan Mukhdinov, the driver for a Chechen police battalion deputy commander. It remains unknown where Mukhdinov is today, or indeed if he is still alive. According to the trial, the bread crumbs end at Mukhdinov, who supposedly masterminded everything. Meduza poses five questions about the verdict against Nemtsov’s killers, who to this day claim to be innocent.

1. Who ordered the murder?

Late at night on February 27, 2015, multiple shots were fired at opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, as he walked across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. It later turned out that the perpetrators of this killing had been following Nemtsov for several months, learning where he lived and even complaining about the spontaneity of his movements. They could have ambushed him anywhere, but they chose a bridge with an excellent panoramic view of Vasilievsky Slope and the Kremlin. The crime was meant to send a message, but the authors of that message still haven’t been named. The immediate perpetrators were apprehended quite quickly, but there was less investigative work as time passed, and the court also muddled things by pretending that it was actually interested in finding out who ordered this murder. It was someone from Chechnya — that’s all that can be said, based on this trial.

2. Who is Ruslan Mukhdinov?

The men who killed Boris Nemtsov, Zaur Dadayev (the triggerman) and his “accomplices.” were promised an estimated 15 million rubles ($251,000) by someone named “Rusik” or “Ruslik.” Investigators identified this man as Ruslan Mukhdinov, a soldier in Chechnya’s “Sever” police battalion. In fact, Mukhdinov served as the personal driver for Ruslan Geremeyev, the battalion’s deputy commander. To repeat: the personal driver of a law enforcement unit deputy commander supposedly orchestrated the murder of one of Russia’s most prominent political figures, promising the killers millions of rubles. That is the state’s official, conclusive version of what happened to Boris Nemtsov.

Ruslan Mukhudinov’s current whereabouts have not been established. He remains at large. As of July 2015, he was believed to be hiding somewhere in the mountains. Never once during the investigation or trial did law enforcement authorities indicate that they were close to capturing him. It’s not even known if he’s still alive.

3. Why wasn’t Ruslan Geremeyev questioned?

Mukhudinov’s boss, Ruslan Geremeyev, is the deputy commander of the “Sever” battalion and a relative of several high-ranking Chechen state officials, including Senator Suleiman Geremeyev and State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov. These figures all belong to the inner circle of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Lawyers for Boris Nemtsov’s family argue that Ruslan Geremeyev was likely the true organizer of the murder.

Ruslan Geremeyev apparently lives in Chechnya. We know at least that he has a home there, and a state investigator once visited this home, but no one answered the door. The investigator even admitted as much in court. It’s also known that Dadayev and Eskerkhanov were in regular contact with Geremeyev. Both had his telephone number. Geremeyev also rented them an apartment in Moscow.

Of all the high-ranking Chechen officials tied to this case, the only person to appear in court was Alibek Delimkhanov, the brother of Senator Adam Delimkhanov and a former commander in the battalion where Dadayev, Geremeyev, and Mukhudinov served. In his testimony, Delimkhanov refused to answer most of the questions, telling the court that he couldn’t remember anything. The Nemtsov family’s lawyers insisted on calling Ramzan Kadyrov to the stand, but the judge rejected their request.

4. Where’s the evidence?

After shooting Nemtsov, the gunman threw the murder weapon into the river. Divers searched for roughly a week, but they never found the pistol. And so this is what we know about the weapon used to kill Boris Nemtsov: it was “a copy of an unidentified functioning 9-millimeter firearm.”

The killing occurred in the very center of Moscow, in an area under the jurisdiction of the Federal Protective Service, but there turned out to be no security cameras that clearly recorded the moment of the murder (or such footage exists, or existed, but it wasn’t presented in court).

Traces of DNA belonging to Dadayev, Beslan Shavanov, and Anzor and Shadid Gubashev were found in the car they used to flee the crime scene, before abandoning the vehicle and continuing their getaway. This constitutes the main evidence used to prove their involvement in the murder. Police could find no DNA traces of Eskerkhanov in the car, but they did establish that he communicated closely and was acquainted with Ruslan Geremeyev. The court convicted Khamzat Bakhayev because he rented a home with the Gubashev brothers. (On this evidence alone, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.)

The apparent lack of evidence has allowed the defendants to deny their guilt completely, and it’s no accident that they were seen smiling throughout the trial.

5. Why was Boris Nemtsov killed?

In their closing statements, the defendants and their lawyers praised Nemtsov, vowing that monuments in Chechnya would be built to him and slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Not a single man pled guilty.

Discussing the killers’ motive, state prosecutor Maria Semenenko only casually mentioned that the defendants likely objected to Nemtsov’s support for the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, which suffered a deadly attack by Islamists in January 2015 after it published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

But this is a very weak motive. According to the case materials, the defendants put Nemtsov under surveillance well before the Charlie Hebdo shooting and subsequent “Je Suis Charlie” free speech movement. In their original testimonies to police, Dadayev and Gubashev said that Nemtsov allegedly called for Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures to be reprinted, but that is untrue. It was former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, not Nemtsov, who proposed this. Before the case ever went to trial, both Dadayev and Gubashev also retracted their statements about Charlie Hebdo.

According to the court’s ruling, Boris Nemtsov was murdered for a cash reward promised to his killers. And that’s all. The court’s version of events says nothing about ideology or politics. The prosecution was clearly more focused on the details of the crime than it cared about the reasons it was carried out in the first place.

But who had Boris Nemtsov killed, and why? With the murder trial now over, we don’t know any more about this than we did a week after the shooting, when Zaur Dadayev was arrested in Moscow on March 8, 2015, and refused to answer questions, making faces and teasing the prosecutor.

Meduza's editorial staff