MOSCOW >> A Moscow jury convicted five men today in the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on a bridge near the Kremlin two years ago, ending a nine-month trial that his supporters said had failed to bring the true masterminds of slaying to justice.
The brazen killing so close to Red Square sent shockwaves through the Russian opposition, which had looked to Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, as a rare figure in a position to negotiate with authorities.
After two days of deliberations the jury at a Moscow court today found the suspected triggerman Zaur Dadayev, a former officer in the security forces of Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, guilty of murdering Nemtsov. Four other men were convicted of involvement in the killing.
Prosecutors said the four men were accomplices who helped obtain the murder weapons and transported the shooter to the crime scene. Investigators said they never established who ordered the politician’s assassination.
Prosecutors are expected to announce the sentences they are seeking at a hearing next week.
Nemtsov, a top political opponent of President Vladimir Putin, was shot late at night on Feb. 27, 2015 as he was walking across the bridge just outside the Kremlin. The images of his dead body lying on the sidewalk with the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral towering behind sent a chilling message to many in the opposition, who had faced persecution and arrests, just how precarious their position was.
Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov’s close ally, echoed that sentiment, speaking to reporters after the verdict was delivered today:
“Political murders in Russia will continue if the masterminds of this attack are able to get away with this.”
The site on the Bolshoy Moskovetsky Bridge where Nemtsov was killed has become a shrine, with candles, fresh flowers and framed photos of the politician set on the sidewalk where he fell.
Following Putin’s call for a full probe, investigators quickly tracked down several people linked to the killing, all of them from Chechnya. The suspected triggerman was an officer in Kadyrov’s much-feared security force, and his suspected liaison, another senior officer in the Chechen police, was a relative of some of Kadyrov’s top lieutenants.
Despite the mounting pressure to investigate Kadyrov’s role in the killing, Putin stood by him and the investigation has fizzled. Key suspects have disappeared and reportedly have been whisked abroad, and the investigators have failed to name the organizers.
Nemtsov’s allies and family have criticized Russia’s Investigative Committee, which investigates high-profile crimes, for stopping short of studying a possible role of Kadyrov and top Chechen officers.
When the now-convicted gunman, former officer Dadayev, was arrested shortly after the killing, Kadyrov vehemently defended him as a “true patriot.”
Nemtsov’s allies squarely blame the murder on Kadyrov who has been accused of numerous human rights violations including torture and killings, saying that the officers could not possibly have acted without his explicit orders. Kadyrov denied any role in the assassination.
Nemtsov’s eldest daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, said in a Facebook post after the verdict was announced today that “the case remains unsolved.”
“Investigators and the court clearly did not want to uncover the truth about this crime,” Nemtsova said, noting that no high-profile Chechen officials were even questioned. “There was only one task: find the triggerman and hold a trial. They did just that. But we will continue to fight for the truth by any means we have.”
Nemtsov’s family petitioned investigators to look into Kadyrov’s possible involvement and to question Ruslan Geremeyev, commander of the police unit in which Dadayev served.
The commander was summoned to testify, but he failed to show up. Investigators told the court last year that they visited Geremeyev’s property in Chechnya but “no one opened the door.”
Dadayev and the other men confessed soon after they were arrested. They later retracted their confessions, saying they had been tortured.
Asked if the investigation into Nemtsov’s killing should be resumed, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies this evening that “this is not the Kremlin’s issue.”
Dmitry Kozlov contributed to this report.