Russia suggests Berezovsky was behind journalist's killing
Russian prosecutors have announced a breakthrough in the hunt for the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist and prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, who was murdered last year.
Conveniently for the Kremlin, the finger of suspicion points directly at President Vladimir Putin's main enemy, the exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
The announcement came three days before what would have been Politkovskaya's 49th birthday, and almost a year after she was shot dead in a hail of bullets in the lift of her Moscow apartment building early last October.
The Russian prosecutor-general, Yuri Chaika, said at a press conference in Moscow yesterday that 10 arrests had been made, including the direct organisers, accomplices and the assassin himself.
Figures within the Russian Interior Ministry and secret services have been arrested as accomplices to the crime, but it was hinted that the mastermind of the murder was the oligarch living outside Russia.
The person who ordered the crime, said Mr Chaika, was living outside Russia and wanted to "destabilise the situation in the country ... and return to the previous ruling system, when money and oligarchs decided everything."
This would suggest either the London-based Boris Berezovsky, or the former head of Yukos oil and gas company, Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel. The Kremlin and Russian authorities have long suggested that Mr Berezovsky is behind the murder of both Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent poisoned in London last November.
Experts and former colleagues of the assassinated journalist expressed satisfaction that arrests had been made, but scepticism at Mr Chaika's conclusions.
"It's good that there has been progress in the case," said Igor Yakovenko, secretary-general of the Russian Union of Journalists. "If we believe everything that Chaika says then this is the end of the sad tradition of the murders of journalists in Russia going unsolved." But, he said, there were several doubts about the allegations. "It's worrying that, even before the investigation has been officially completed, they are pointing the finger at people abroad," he said.
Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, the opposition newspaper where Politkovskaya published her hard-hitting reports on Russian politics and the conflict in Chechnya, expressed similar doubts. "We have known about this for a while. We've worked together with their investigation and we trust their professionalism," said Mr Muratov. "But we are absolutely amazed that they have openly stated they know who ordered the crime before the investigation has even been completed."
Mr Muratov confirmed that a security services official had been arrested, and revealed that the FSB security-service operative in question was a Moscow-based lieutenant-colonel. "At this stage, I don't want to reveal any more," he said. "Let's wait first for the court case."
Mr Chaika stated that the killing was carried out by a Chechen criminal gang operating in Moscow that specialises in professional hits. He also linked the group to the killings of Andrei Kozlov, the corruption-fighting banker who was shot dead last year, and the Forbes magazine editor Paul Klebnikov, killed in 2004.
He refused to name the mastermind, but separately stated that Russia's long-standing efforts to have Boris Berezovsky brought before a Russian court could bear fruit soon, if the former oligarch is extradited from Britain to Brazil, where he is wanted on charges of financial irregularity, and from there to Russia.
If all of Mr Chaika's claims are to be believed, it would mean that members of Russia's security services are under the command of Boris Berezovsky. " The level of corruption in Russia can bring many unpleasant surprises," said Gennady Gudkov, a former FSB colonel and now a member of the security committee of the Duma, or parliament. Mr Gudkov said he was certain the London-based exile was behind the killing: "My information leads me to believe that Berezovsky himself, or people controlled by him, are behind both this act and many acts of terrorism."
Others were sceptical. "We have no guarantees the names of those who really ordered the killing and the names of those who will be accused of it will be the same," said a statement from Novaya Gazeta's editorial team. "We have no complaints about the investigative team. We're working together ... But we want to be certain that nothing 'expedient', with no actual relation to the crime, influences this joint work."
Many might wonder if it is a little too convenient that Mr Chaika's statement neatly confirms the Kremlin's allegations from the start. "It makes you wonder if we are dealing not only with an 'ordered' killing but with an 'ordered' investigation too," said Mr Yakovenko.
Mr Berezovsky did not comment last night.
A passionate critic of Putin
* Born in New York in 1958 to Soviet Ukrainian parents - both UN diplomats - Anna Politkovskaya graduated as a journalist from Moscow State university and went on to report for the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya for over 10 years. In 1999, she became a national figure when she joined the relatively liberal Novaya Gazeta, a paper which took a consistently critical line against the Kremlin.
* She travelled regularly to Chechnya and the north Caucasus, reporting especially on the deaths of innocent civilians caught up in the war there with Russia.
* In 2002, she tried to help negotiate at the scene after becoming one of the few journalists to enter the theatre in Moscow seized by Chechen militants who held hundreds of people hostage.
* In 2004, she reported that she had been poisoned by a cup of tea on a flight.
* In the same year, she wrote Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, a book attacking Mr Putin's human rights record. Her final article was about pro-Kremlin militias operating a policy of "Chechenisation" in the region. She was shot dead in her Moscow apartment block on 7 October 2006.