Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Wunderkind Faces Next Big Trial

MTMurad Musayev

Defense lawyer Murad Musayev was looking unusually casual and relaxed in a cafe on Novy Arbat, just a minute’s walk from the Moscow District Military Court. Half a year ago, he left the building in triumph along with the suspects he helped acquit of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

“When the Politkovskaya trial was over, I couldn’t feel any emotions or any happiness — just some tranquil pleasure,” Musayev recalled, leaning on his hand.

An ethnic Chechen — a rarity among the country’s high-profile lawyers — the 25-year-old Musayev has shot to fame since that case, in which several other top-notch lawyers were representing Politkovskaya’s family.

“When I got home later that day, I sat down and was just sitting motionless, staring out a window,” Musayev said in an interview with The Moscow Times.

On Feb. 19, following a three-month trial, the 12 jury members unanimously found Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov not guilty of involvement in the murder of Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her central Moscow apartment building in October 2006.

Musayev — formally the lawyer for Dzhabrail Makhmudov — actually orchestrated the entire defense team’s case, many observers of the first trial said.

The Supreme Court overturned the jury’s decision on June 26, however, and ordered a retrial after prosecutors argued that the judge had committed numerous procedural violations.

The retrial starts Wednesday, and Musayev will reprise his role as the public face of the defense team. He is also working on another high-profile trial that started July 17 over the 2002 murder of Magadan Governor Valentin Tsvetkov.

Musayev arrived for the interview accompanied by a tall man in black, apparently his bodyguard, but came inside alone.

The protection isn’t merely the whim of a rising star. Lawyers and reporters working with Chechens have had to take additional precautions since the murders of Politkovskaya, who wrote on human rights abuses in the republic, and lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who had defended Chechens in Russia and was shot dead in central Moscow in January.

When Judge Viktor Zubkov finally ruled that the Politkovskaya trial would be open to the public, a dozen journalists were allowed into the back of the small courtroom, squeezed onto wooden benches with relatives of the Makhmudov brothers.

Musayev quickly impressed even veteran court reporters. Wearing a sleek suit cut specially for him by a ­Naples ­tailor and protesting every statement made by the prosecutors, he had the air of an expensive lawyer from a Hollywood court drama.

But Musayev said he joined the defense by chance and was working for free.

“A friend of mine phoned me at night and said that his friend Dzhabrail had been arrested,” Musayev said in the interview.

Only later, he learned from media reports that the arrest was related to Politkovskaya’s killing, and it took even more time to break through the law enforcement bureaucracy to meet his would-be client.

“At first, I didn’t want to take the case because of my respect for Politkovskaya,” Musayev confessed.

An award-winning reporter, Politkovskaya was perhaps the most vocal critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“I asked Dzhabrail: ‘Amigo! Were you anywhere near the crime scene?’ And he convinced me of his innocence,” Musayev said. “I’m absolutely sure that the charges against the brothers were made up.”

Musayev thinks that the win means justice is possible in Russia, even in a high-profile political case. But he said the suspects would never have been acquitted without a jury.

“No jury court means no justice in Russia,” he said.

Having tried his hand at various legal cases, Musayev says he finds criminal ones the most interesting.

He represented the victims in the so-called Ulman Trial in 2007, when four Russian troops led by Captain Eduard Ulman were convicted of murdering six civilians in Chechnya in 2002.

Ulman and two other defendants have been missing since failing to show up for hearings in the trial. The fourth defendant was sentenced to nine years in prison. The case had been followed closely in Chechnya, where many were outraged that no one had been brought to justice for the killings.

Musayev also participated in a trial in a Karelian court against six natives of the Caucasus accused of starting a brawl with local residents of Kondopoga in August 2006, which resulted in two deaths.

The incident sparked ethnic riots and violence against the Caucasus natives living in the Karelian town.

Musayev was also a defense lawyer for Chechen Umar Batukayev, one of the three men accused of preparing an assassination attempt against Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007.

But the Politkovskaya trial was Musayev’s first before a jury, and he said it was also his first victory in a criminal case out of the dozen he has worked on. The unanimous not-guilty verdict he won remains a rarity in Russian courts.

When the trial ended, several Russian newspapers wrote that it was thanks to Musayev that the jury believed in the suspects’ innocence.

“He’s the best lawyer working with criminal cases in Russia at the moment,” Novaya Gazeta journalist and radio talk show host Yulia Latynina said on Ekho Moskvy at the time.

Novaya Gazeta is conducting an independent investigation into Politkovskaya’s murder, which is focusing on the two brothers, Khadzhikurbanov and former Federal Security Service officer Pavel Ryaguzov.

“It was not just Musayev’s victory, because there were other lawyers,” said Valery Chernikov, lawyer for Ryaguzov, who was released with the three suspects in Politkovskaya’s murder. Ryaguzov was tried on charges of abuse of power in a case unrelated to Politkovskaya’s killing, but for unclear reasons he sat on the defendants’ bench with the other three during the trial.

Musayev is a very good orator, energetic and active, though sometimes too active, Chernikov said. “For his age, he’s a very competent lawyer.”

Musayev says he went into law because it’s a “profession liberale” and that he wouldn’t be able to work in any other profession in Russia.

He believes that the judicial system here is all but hopeless, but he nonetheless finds working in Russia more interesting than anywhere else.

“The investigators even threatened to open a criminal case against me when I was going to speak on Ekho Moskvy before the trial, fearing that I would disclose some secret evidence,” he said.

The chief investigator in Politkovskaya’s murder, Petros Garibyan, could not be reached for comment.

Shortly after his birth in Grozny, Musayev’s family moved to Moscow in 1983.

The son of a lawyer, he graduated from the prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations and is going to get a doctoral degree there later this year. Musayev said he wasn’t a disciplined student but a very lucky one.

Apart from his work, Musayev lectures at Moscow and Chechen schools, boxes, rides horses and draws.

Musayev said he always keeps a pile of paper in his car so he can draw in traffic jams. He even tried to practice drawing with an artist on the Arbat during breaks in the Politkovskaya trial, but he was once noticed by the prosecutors and had to abandon the idea.

In his emotional speeches before the Politkovskaya jury, Musayev often used rhetorical questions and aphorisms, citing classic writers and philosophers. In his interview, however, he confessed that he spends more time reading court documents than literature.

“The Politkovskaya murder case included 42 volumes. I’ve read them all three times,” Musayev said.

“I was seriously thinking of quitting as a lawyer if there was a guilty verdict. Thankfully, it didn’t happen,” Musayev said, adding that he couldn’t imagine doing any other job.

“Maybe just writing,” he said.