MAGAS, Russia — Only one spectator showed up for the final hearing in the killing of Magomed Yevloyev. He was a broad-beamed, ruddy-faced man in a pressed black suit, and once in the courtroom he removed his tall fur hat, put it on the bench beside him and waited for a chance to speak.
When the time came, Yakhya Yevloyev stood and recited a litany of evidence not gathered that might have led to a murder conviction in his son’s death.
The room went silent out of respect for the man’s loss, and for a moment it seemed as if the process could rewind 18 months to the beginning, when his son, an opposition leader in the southern republic of Ingushetia, was hustled into a police car and shot through the head at point-blank range.
Back then, in August 2008, it was a crime so outrageous that it seemed to demand action. Magomed Yevloyev was feuding with the region’s leader, Murat Zyazikov, when the two men happened to board the same flight from Moscow. Half an hour after the police escorted Yevloyev, 36, off the plane, he was dropped off at a hospital with an execution-style wound.
Death is often murky in the violent borderland of the Russian north Caucasus, but this one seemed different. Protests broke out in Ingushetia, and Western leaders pressed Moscow to punish those responsible. Even the Kremlin appeared to feel the political pressure: Within two months, President Dmitry Medvedev removed both Zyazikov and his interior minister.
Almost two years later, the case serves as a lesson in how the legal process can be strangled. In Russia, the prosecutor has long served as the guard dog of the powerful. In this case, federal investigators reporting to Moscow took over and blocked any inquiry that could have pointed to senior officials.
Yakhya urged investigators to pursue the case as a murder, but an examination of the legal records shows that possibility was not explored. Instead, the state opened a case of negligent homicide, a mild charge used in medical malpractice cases, and prosecutors requested a sentence of two years.
The official explanation of what happened took shape an hour and five minutes after Yevloyev died on a hospital bed. His death, investigators wrote, resulted from a bizarre accident.
Shot ‘point blank’
When Magomed Yevloyev arrived at the hospital that day, he was in a “deep coma,” and a doctor measured his blood pressure at zero. A coroner pronounced him dead at 2:55 p.m., describing the gunshot wound to his head, canting upward through his right parietal lobe, as “point blank.”
At 4 p.m., an investigator in the regional prosecutor’s office opened a negligent homicide case, stating that Yevloyev was being transported for questioning in a bombing case when he tried to wrestle a Kalashnikov rifle from the officer to his right. The investigator had not spoken to the three officers who were in the car — he had just read statements provided by the Ingush Interior Ministry — and his explanation raised more questions than it answered.
“Measures were taken to suppress that attempt,” he wrote, “during the course of which Mr. Yevloyev received a gunshot wound from an accidental shot from a police weapon.”
If investigators checked for Yevloyev’s fingerprints on the Kalashnikov, they never presented any evidence of it. And if Yevloyev reared his head back and hit the gun, it is not clear how the bullet hit him on the flat side of the head, an inch above his left ear. But a transcript of the crime scene re-enactment shows the forensic experts did not press the matter.
Yakhya Yevloyev, 67, did not expect prosecutors to represent his interests. Under Russian law, victims hire their own counsel to cross-examine witnesses and testify in court. This gives them a formal voice, but not an equal one. In this case, Yakhya and his lawyers were alone in arguing that his son had been murdered.
Yuri Turygin, the regional prosecutor in Ingushetia, said he prayed that Yevloyev would survive the gunshot wound, aware of the turmoil that would result if he died. Yet he suggested that Yevloyev, with his history of defiance, provoked his captors as he was being driven to police headquarters, knowing that some of his supporters were in pursuit.
It was Turygin’s office that opened an investigation into negligent homicide. The case was taken out of his hands a day later, when it was transferred to the federal investigative committee, based in Moscow. In any case, Turygin said that if Yakhya Yevloyev had a compelling argument that a murder charge should have been pursued, the judges had leeway to send the case back to the prosecutor.
In response to detailed questions from The New York Times, a spokesman for the federal investigative committee wrote that legal analysis of the evidence was “not within the authority of investigative organs,” and suggested that questions be directed to judges instead.
Magomed Daurbekov, the chairman of Ingushetia’s Council of Judges, said the blame should fall on investigators, since judges are constrained by the evidence they compile.
In December 2009, officer Ibragim Yevloyev was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in a prison colony. Yakhya appealed, and by March, when the case reached the Ingush Supreme Court in Magas, the capital, he was the last person hanging on the result.
Blood feuds declared
After his death, unnamed “friends of the deceased” declared a blood feud against 13 officials, but Yakhya said he argued strenuously against it, rejecting a tradition that courses through the Caucasus. In the brilliant light of the Supreme Court, he begged the judges to send the case back to the prosecutors on the basis of its flaws. Indeed the judges had identified a flaw, but it was not one that he expected. As he sat in stunned silence, the judges announced that prosecutors had overcharged Ibragim Yevloyev and reduced his sentence from two years in a prison camp to two years’ house arrest.
The policeman, Ibragim Yevloyev, remains under house arrest, though his lawyer says he is still a target in a blood feud.
But in the end, none of these men will make the final decision on how to define justice in this incendiary part of Russia. That choice falls to Magomed Yevloyev’s children, who will have to decide whether to put their faith in the state.