Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 for his role as an accomplice in the killling of Politkovskaya, 48. She 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 abuses.
She was shot and killed in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block, triggering outrage at home and in the West, and emphasizing the dangers faced by independent journalists in Russia. Her death on Oct. 7, Putin’s birthday, led to suggestions the shooting — in which the Kremlin denied any role — was done to curry favor with the president.
Four others also were convicted in the killing: gunman Rustam Makhmudov and his uncle, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, who received life in prison, and two of Makhmudov’s brothers, who received 12 and 14 years.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, private military contractors and the Defense Ministry have offered prisoners their freedom in exchange for fighting in the war.
Khadzhikurbanov, a former police detective, was released last year to fight in Ukraine and then signed a Defense Ministry contract to continue serving after his pardon, his lawyer Alexei Mikhalchik told The Associated Press.
He was offered a command position in the military because he was in the “special forces" in the late 1990s and was in "almost all the hot spots,” Mikhalchik said.
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, and Politkovskaya's children, Vera and Ilya, condemned Khadzhikurbanov's release.
“For us, this ‘pardon’ is not evidence of atonement and repentance of the killer. This is a monstrous fact of injustice. ... It is an outrage to the memory of a person killed for her beliefs and professional duty,” they said.
Muratov said the “victims in this case — the children of Anna Politkovskaya and the editors” — were not told in advance about the pardon. They also slammed Russian authorities for using the law "according to its own perverted understanding,” by giving long prison sentences to political opponents while setting murderers free.
Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 but this year was declared by Russian authorities to be a foreign agent, continuing the country’s moves to suppress critics and independent reporting.
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. They redeem themselves by shedding blood in assault brigades, under bullet fire and shelling,” he said.
Mikhalchik said he was “happy” his client was freed because he never believed he was involved in killing Politkovskaya.
Muratov told the AP that while Khadzhikurbanov "was not the direct perpetrator of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya,” no investigation has taken place to establish who was behind it.
“The person who ordered it is free, and the accomplice to the crime has been pardoned. This all that can be said about the protection of freedom of speech in Russia," he said.
Muratov noted it was the second recent example of a prisoner convicted in a killing to win his freedom after serving in Ukraine.
Vera Pekhteleva, 23, was killed in January 2020 by her boyfriend after ending their relationship. The man convicted in her death, Vladislav Kanyus, was pardoned in April, according to lawyer and human rights advocate Alena Popova.
Pekhteleva's family discovered Kanyus was free when her mother saw online photos of him wearing camouflage and holding a weapon, Popova said on her Telegram channel.
“There is no justice. There is no law. There are no human rights. Nothing. Just total violence,” Popova told AP in response to the news about the release of Khadzhikurbanov.
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine