A year on, what do we know about Boris Nemtsov’s murder?

Nemtsov March of Mourning

Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee has announced that it has solved the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov after a probe lasting almost a year. But who killed Nemtsov and why is the investigation seen as inconclusive? RBTH looks back at the most headline-grabbing murder of 2015.

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – rbth.ru – YEKATERINA SINELSCHIKOVA, RBTH – February 26, 2016)

One year ago, prominent opposition politician and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was gunned down late at night in central Moscow.

Many details of the daring murder had a particular symbolism: the victim’s body lying a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, the timing on the eve of a big opposition rally, the publicity surrounding Nemtsov’s work on a report about the presence of Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine. The opposition saw that murder as “a black mark,” the Kremlin as a “vile” and “cynical” act of provocation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who took the investigation under his personal control, more than once publically demanded that the masterminds and perpetrators of that killing be found, “whoever they are.”

In January 2016, the Russian Investigations Committee announced that the crime had been solved. The defendants are five men who have long been in custody on suspicion of having carried out the killing.

The charge of organizing and commissioning the murder was pressed against Ruslan Mukhudinov, whom the media and sources close to the case describe as an aide and personal driver to Ruslan Geremeyev, a man from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s inner circle. However, the investigators have not been able to establish either Mukhudinov’s motive or his present whereabouts.

Chechnya’s ‘brave warriors’

The finalized indictment (as reported by the media) says that preparations for Nemtsov’s murder began in late September 2014, thereby ruling out a theory that was originally popular in the media that Nemtsov was killed for his position on the Charlie Hebdo attack (which took place in January 2015).

The French satirical magazine had earlier published a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad, provoking a wave of protests from Muslims all over the world, including in Chechnya. Nemtsov was among those public figures who supported the journalists and opposed what he described as a “medieval Islamic inquisition.”

The investigation has established that the only motive guiding the alleged killer and his accomplices was material gain. Mukhudinov had promised to pay them 15 million rubles ($224,000 at the then-exchange rate) for the murder.

What is the special-purpose Sever Battalion?

The battalion was formed in 2006 from among units controlled by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. It is sometimes referred to in the media as Kadyrov’s private battalion.

The man who, according to the investigation, pulled the trigger is a former (and decorated) serviceman of the Chechnya-based Sever Battalion (see box), Zaur Dadayev.

Four other people, at least three of whom previously had connections with the security and law-enforcement structures, are suspected of involvement in carrying out the crime.

According to the investigation, they arrived in Moscow, started following Nemtsov and killed him when he was walking home from a restaurant with Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya.

Nemtsov’s companion was not injured, the killer jumped into his accomplices’ car and drove away, leaving the young woman standing above the slain politician’s body lying on the bridge.

On the following day practically all the alleged perpetrators left Moscow, but already a week later they were detained in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. The sixth suspect was tracked down in Chechnya but he apparently blew himself up before he was apprehended.

Right after the suspects’ detention, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wrote on Instagram that Zaur Dadayev was “a true patriot of Russia” and “one of the most courageous servicemen.” Beslan Shavanov, who blew himself up, was a “brave warrior” too, according to Kadyrov.

Hired guns alone?

In the opinion of Nemtsov’s friends and his family’s lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, the investigators did some good professional work at the start of the probe.

“The investigation team very quickly detained the people who carried out the killing,” Ilya Yashin, a close associate of the slain politician, told RBTH.

However, in May the main investigator working on the case was replaced (an expert in nationalist cases was replaced by an investigator specializing in Chechen crime) and as contacts with the investigation became less frequent, the case “was stalling,” said Prokhorov.

After the initial questioning and Dadayev’s confession (which he withdrew a couple of days later), the media began to speak of Ruslan Geremeyev (a company commander in the Chechnya-based Sever Battalion) as the possible mastermind of Nemtsov’s murder.

However, the final version of the indictment has only Mukhudinov and “other unidentified individuals” listed as those who organized and commissioned the murder, which Nemtsov’s family and friends consider “an absurd conclusion.”

“Those who have been detained and will face trial are hired guns. Geremeyev’s driver, who has been put on the wanted list, could not have had grievances against Nemtsov [his motive has not been established – RBTH] or the 15 million rubles ($224,000) to pay the hired guns. That is to say, in effect, neither the organizers, nor those who commissioned the killing, nor the motive have been established,” said Prokhorov.

Mukhudinov was put on the international wanted list in November 2015 and, according to the investigation, was in hiding in the United Arab Emirates. Law-enforcement sources cited by the Rosbalt news agency claim that Mukhudinov is now hiding in the mountains of Chechnya and Geremeyev may be there too.

According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center pollster ahead of the first anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder, half of Russians (52 percent) are convinced that those who commissioned the killing will never be found.

‘A very serious person’

Lawyers representing Nemtsov’s family wanted the investigators to question Ramzan Kadyrov as well as people from his inner circle, since “Dadayev is a man from a battalion under Kadyrov’s control, and – as you know – these days nothing happens in Grozny [the capital of Chechnya] without his command,” said Prokhorov.

Kadyrov said that he was ready to come in for questioning if that could help the investigation but he was never summoned.

“Yet why would anyone from the Chechen leadership want to kill the opposition leader in that place and at that time?” asked the head of the Analysis and Security think tank, a veteran security officer himself, Ruslan Milchenko. “People in the Caucasus know full well the problems that such a high-profile murder can create for the incumbent authorities.”

Frants Klintsevich, first deputy head of the Federation Council’s security and defense committee and a former head of the ruling United Russia party’s Chechen branch, believes that the case will be put to rest in court.

“However, everything that is linked to our law-enforcement system has many nuances,” he said. “The main nuance is, as a rule, a very weak evidence base. Everything depends on how powerful the mastermind is.”

According to Klintsevich, whoever dared to commission such a high-profile murder could be “a very serious person.” What is causing the most concern now, he said, is the amount of speculation surrounding the Nemtsov murder, as there are some who will not miss an opportunity to agitate the public.

Meanwhile, Nemtsov’s associates are still convinced that the politician was killed because of his political work: his criticism of Vladimir Putin, his probe into the presence of Russian servicemen in southeast Ukraine, etc.

Article also appeared at rbth.com/politics_and_society/2016/02/26/a-year-on-what-do-we-know-about-boris-nemtsovs-murder_571079

[featured image is file photo]