A Russian court on Thursday handed lengthy jail terms to five Chechens convicted of the contract killing of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, as his allies insisted the masterminds remain unidentified.
Shooter Zaur Dadayev was sentenced to 20 years in prison while four accomplices were jailed for between 11 and 19 years, judge Yury Zhitnikov told the packed courtroom.
A jury in June found all five guilty of carrying out the hit for a fee of $250 000 (220000 euros) after a marathon trial that Nemtsov’s supporters say failed to unmask those who ordered the killing.
The prosecutor had asked for longer sentences for all the defendants including life in jail for Dadayev — a former internal troop officer in Russia’s Chechnya region.
Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down just metres from the Kremlin as he walked home with his girlfriend on the evening of February 27, 2015.
The brazen murder in central Moscow was the most high-profile political killing in Russia since Putin rose to power some 17 years ago.
Those convicted — Dadayev, brothers Shadid and Anzor Gubashev, Temirlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhayev — are all ethnic Chechens from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus.
Nemtsov’s family and supporters say that people close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who were linked to the murder have not been investigated.
During the trial the judge refused a request to summon Kadyrov for questioning.
“Neither the organisers nor the masterminds were in the dock,” lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, representing Nemtsov’s daughter, told journalists after the sentencing.
“No one any longer doubts that the trail leads to the close circle of Ramzan Kadyrov. The trail leads at least as far as Grozny, and perhaps higher,” he said, hinting at complicity from top Russian officials.
Nemtsov’s close ally, opposition politician Ilya Yashin, slammed the length of the jail term for Dadayev.
“We expected a life sentence for Dadayev. What is 20 years for a human life?,” he said.
“It’s impossible to consider the crime solved while the masterminds and organisers are still at liberty,” he added.*
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile was asked by a journalist whether it was likely the masterminds would be found. “There is hope of this, undoubtedly,” he said.
– ‘Lie’ –
The convicted men have always denied they were involved in the killing and several retracted initial confessions they said were made under torture.
During the sentencing, Eskerkhanov exhaled on the glass window of the enclosure where the defendants were being held and wrote with his finger “lie,” while the men’s relatives wept in the courtroom.
Investigators have said the case is still ongoing over a suspected organiser who has fled.
The suspect, Ruslan Mukhudinov, was the driver of the Chechen interior ministry commander under whom the gunman Dadayev served.
Investigators said Mukhudinov offered the defendants the money for the murder but they never explained why the low-ranking official would have wanted Nemtsov dead or from where he got the funds.
In a statement after the sentencing at Moscow district military court, Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said it was continuing “to gather evidence on the organisers of the Nemtsov murder.”
The murder and subsequent trial have strong echoes of a string of earlier high-profile assassinations that Kremlin critics say have been left unsolved, including the 2006 shooting of anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment building.
Five men — including four members of the same Chechen family — were found guilty of Politkovskaya’s murder, but over a decade later her family and former colleagues remain convinced the masterminds have not been brought to justice.