FSB accuses nationalists of the murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova
Two Russian nationalists have been arrested and charged in the high-profile killings of a human rights lawyer and journalist who were gunned down in Moscow in January, officials said on Thursday.
The double murder of Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who had exposed abuses by the Russian army in Chechnya, and Anastasia Baburova, a reporter at opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, were condemned by the European Union.
The arrests this week were cautiously welcomed by human rights groups, who complain that many killings of Russian journalists and activists go unsolved.
Russias investigative committee said a man and a woman, Nikita Tikhonov, born in 1980, and Yevgenia Khasis, born in 1985, had been charged with the killings. Both were said to be Moscow residents.
"Tikhonov and Khasis were detained on November 3 and 4 in an operation organised by the investigative committee and operatives from the interior ministry and the FSB security service," it said in a statement.
FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov said the two had been caught as part of an investigation into an extreme nationalist group, which was amassing weapons and had been implicated in a racist murder.
"A large amount of military firearms was confiscated from this group," he said in a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin website.
"In the course of additional investigations, another murder was solved, which was committed in September on motives of ethnic hatred, and in which this criminal group was involved," Bortnikov added.
Khasis was a manager at a company called Bukh Uchyot Torgovlya (Accounting Trade), while Nikita Tikhonov was unemployed, a Moscow court spokeswoman said, without giving more details on the suspects.
The pair has been charged with murder by an organised group, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.
The Interfax news agency and Kommersant newspaper, citing law-enforcement sources, reported that the suspects were former members of a banned far-right group called Russian National Unity.
But the former leader of the group, Alexander Barkashov, told Interfax that the suspects were never members.
Kommersant reported that investigators believe the young woman tailed the victims and informed the killer on their whereabouts.
The masked gunman managed to flee after the shootings, carried out in broad daylight on a busy street.
The killings came just after Markelov gave a press conference on the case of Elza Kungayeva, an 18-year-old Chechen girl whose 2000 strangling by Russian army colonel Yury Budanov became a cause celebre of Russian rights activist.
In the case that highlighted abuses by the Russian army in Chechnya, Markelov had vowed to challenge a controversial court decision to grant early release to Budanov, who is viewed as a hero by some nationalist groups.
The lawyer had also represented outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006.
The other victim, Baburova, was a campaigning journalist who wrote about Russias growing problem of racism and ultra-nationalism. Witnesses said she tried to detain the killer after he shot Markelov.
The deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov, told AFP on Thursday that the arrests appear to show a genuine investigation.
"It looks like the truth," Sokolov said, though he added that he had only been following the case through the media.
The director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, Alison Gill, described the announcement as "positive news."
"Our only kind of concern is that the authorities take every possible measure to investigate not only who carried out the killings but also who ordered them," Gill said.
"The track record in such cases hasnt been good, so were only cautiously optimistic," she added.