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Russia pardons ex-policeman convicted of journalist’s murder

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Sergei Khadzhikurbanov signed a contract to participate in a military operation in Ukraine and was granted freedom.

Russian authorities have pardoned a former policeman jailed over the 2006 killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya after he fought in Ukraine, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was one of five people jailed in connection with the murder of Politkovskaya, who worked for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. She was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment block aged 48.

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“As a special forces fighter, (Khadzhikurbanov) was invited to sign a contract to participate in the special military operation. Which he did,” lawyer Alexei Mikhalchik told AFP.

Pardoned by the president

“When the contract expired, he was pardoned by presidential decree,” Mikhalchik said.

Khadzhikurbanov went on to sign another contract as a volunteer and is still fighting in Ukraine, he added.

Thousands of prisoners are thought to have been sent to the battlefield since Moscow launched its offensive last February, with critics warning some have committed new crimes after returning home.

Khadzhikurbanov was initially acquitted of Politkovskaya’s killing by a jury in 2009, embarrassing prosecutors. But after the Supreme Court threw out the original verdict he was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison.

Sentence cut short

He would have served until at least 2030 had he not been pardoned, his lawyer said.

Her children and the editorial board of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which is now banned in Russia, said in a statement that they had not been told in advance about Khadzhikurbanov’s pardon.

“For us, this pardon is not evidence of the redemption and remorse of the murderer,” they said.

“It is a monstrous fact of injustice and arbitrariness, a desecration of the memory of a person killed for their beliefs and the fulfilment of their professional duty.”

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The head of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, said Putin had “graced” the murder accomplice, calling it “the usual cynicism by the Kremlin chief.”

Atone with blood

Politkovskaya was well known for her forthright criticism of the Kremlin, denouncing alleged abuses by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and writing a scathing book on President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power.

While Khadzhikurbanov and four others were jailed for carrying out the killing, the European Court of Human Rights in 2018 criticised Russian investigators for failing to properly look into who contracted the crime.

Politkovskaya had written books and articles detailing what she described as brutality by Russian and pro-Russian security forces during the Chechen war, and had allegedly faced intimidation from Putin-ally Kadyrov and his subordinates.

Khadzhikurbanov’s pardon, which was first reported by the RBC and Baza news outlets, comes amid renewed scrutiny surrounding the use of convicts in Ukraine, after the controversial pardon of a man who had brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend.

One of many prisoner recruits

The Kremlin last week acknowledged the use of prisoner recruits to fight in the conflict and said convicts who “atone for their crime on the battlefield with blood” could be pardoned.

“They are atoning with blood in storm brigades, under bullets and under shells,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.

President Vladimir Putin said in September that Russian prisoners who died in Ukraine had “redeemed themselves” in the eyes of society.

Russia has probably recruited 100,000 people from prisons to fight, Olga Romanova, head of an independent prisoners’ rights group has estimated.

Russian media outlets have reported several instances of released prisoners going on to commit serious offences, including murders, after leaving the army.

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