A Russian court yesterday acquitted two men accused of murdering US journalist and Forbes Russian edition editor Paul Klebnikov in Moscow in 2004, and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict.
The Moscow City Court's verdict followed a jury vote Friday to acquit ethnic Chechen Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev in the killing of Klebnikov.
Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin told reporters that he would appeal the verdict to Russia's Supreme Court on "flagrant procedural violations." Under Russian law, acquittals can be appealed.
Prosecutors claimed the defendants killed Klebnikov on behalf of a Chechen separatist figure who was the subject of a critical book by the victim.
Critics of Russia's justice system, which came under fire during the trial of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and is widely seen as lacking independence from the Kremlin, have said prosecutors failed to properly pursue other lines of investigation in the Klebnikov case.
Klebnikov, a 41-year-old New Yorker of Russian descent, was shot on the street outside the Forbes office in Moscow in July 2004. The high-profile slaying raised questions about who would want to kill Klebnikov, a journalist and author who investigated corruption and sought to shed light on the closed, sometimes violent world of Russian business.
Dukuzov's lawyer Igor Korotkov said eight jurors favored acquittal and four were opposed.
Relatives and friends of the defendants met the verdict with cheers, applause and tears of relief outside the courtroom.
Klebnikov's widow and brothers said they respected the process of the jury trial and had been satisfied with the Russian prosecutor's commitment to the case.
But they expressed dismay that the case remained unsolved, and said the truth in the killing must be pursued until justice was served.
"This just adds yet another chapter to that sad story and tragic history of journalists getting knocked off with impunity in Russia," said Michael Klebnikov, one of the victim's brothers. "It's horrendous."
The trial was held in secret, but Michael Klebnikov said the evidence he was aware of indicated that the accused men had had a role in the murder.
That view was shared by a lawyer who had reviewed the evidence and said it included extensive cellphone records that showed that both suspects were near Paul Klebnikov for two weeks before his death, but never before and never after.
That suggests, the lawyer said, that they conducted a detailed surveillance.
The lawyer, who said he had to remain anonymous because there had been a gag order on the case, said that one of the suspects had left fingerprints in the car from which Klebnikov was shot, and that clothing from the other defendant had been in the vehicle.
Moreover, the men went on a spending spree after the killing, the lawyer said, suggesting that they had been paid.