One of five men convicted of killing a Russian journalist critical of the Kremlin has been pardoned halfway through his 20-year sentence after a stint fighting in the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was sentenced in 2014 for his role as an accomplice in the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, in 2006.
The journalist worked for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and wrote stories critical of Kremlin policies during the early years of president Vladimir Putin’s term, the war in Chechnya and human rights.
She was shot and killed in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block, triggering outrage at home and in the West.
Her death on 7 October, which is Putin’s birthday, led to suggestions the shooting was done to please the president.
It emphasised the dangers faced by independent journalists in Russia, though the Kremlin has always denied any involvement in the killing.
Khadzhikurbanov, a former police detective, was released last year to fight in Ukraine and then signed a contract with the Russian defence ministry to continue serving after his pardon, according to his lawyer Alexei Mikhalchik.
It is the most high profile case of Russia’s defence ministry hiring prisoners to fight in Ukraine on the promise of a presidential pardon.
The tactic was widely employed by Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin last year. Footage from several prisons showed the warlord encouraging prisoners convicted of murder and sexual assault to join his mercenary group to atone for their crimes.
They would be offered six-month contracts to fight in Ukraine, after which they would be pardoned. One of the first instances of pardoned mercenaries was published in January this year.
Reports later emerged suggesting Russian civilians were anxious to be living among ex-convicts, many of whom were culpable of the most serious crimes and had also spent six months in frontline combat.
Following the removal of Wagner from Ukraine and the subsequent death of Prigozhin on August 24, which was itself widely regarded as suspicious, the Russian defence ministry began more substantially recruiting from penal colonies.
The prisoners are often said to be used as cannon fodder in what has become known as “human wave attacks” popularised by the Wagner Group; it involves using dozens of the convicts in a first line charge on Ukrainian positions ostensibly to soak up enemy fire, allowing soldiers behind to advance under less heavy resistance.
But Khadzhikurbanov was offered a command position in the military, according to his lawyer Mikhalchik, because he was in the “special forces” in the late 1990s and was in “almost all the hot spots”, including in Chechnya.
Following the pardon, Ms Politkovskaya children, Ilya and Vera Politkovsky, issued a joint statement with their mother’s former paper Novaya Gazeta in which they claimed they had “not been informed about the killer’s pardon”.
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, said the pardon was “not evidence of atonement and repentance of the killer” but a “monstrous fact of injustice”.
“It is an outrage to the memory of a person killed for her beliefs and professional duty,” he said.
Russian human rights advocate Alena Popova, who has been critical of previous pardons, including that of a man who murdered his girlfriend before fighting in Ukraine, also issued a statement decrying Khadzhikurbanov’s release.
“How many more murderers and rapists will the war free?” she asked.
Bill Browder, formerly one of the largest foreign investors in Russia before being removed by Vladimir Putin, described the pardon as a “cynical slap in the face of justice”. He added that the presidential pardon was doubly sinister given it was Putin who “ordered her killing”.
“The pardoning of Anna Politkovskaya’s killer is a cynical slap in the face of justice and her family,” he told The Independent. “But we should not forget that the person who ordered her killing has remained free since her murder and sits as the head of state in Russia ordering many more murders and misery inside of Russia, in Ukraine and all over the world.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this month that convicts recruited to fight in Ukraine are worthy of pardons.
“Those sentenced, even on grave charges, shed their blood on the battlefield to atone for their crimes,” he said. “They redeem themselves by shedding blood in assault brigades, under bullet fire and shelling.”