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Russian jury decides fate of men charged with murder of American

MOSCOW—A verdict is expected Friday in the trial of two men charged with murdering American journalist Paul Klebnikov nearly two years ago. No matter what the Russian jurors decide, however, the closed-door trial has created doubts about the prosecution's case.

Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine and an investigative reporter, was gunned down after he left work late on July 9, 2004.

Russian prosecutors accused fugitive Chechen separatist leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev of hiring fellow Chechens Musa Vakhayev and Kazbek Dukuzov to murder Klebnikov in retaliation for his unflattering portrayal of Nukhayev in the 2003 book "Conversations With a Barbarian." The book was published only in Russian.

Very little evidence supporting the prosecutors' claims has been publicly disclosed, and press freedom groups and Klebnikov's family say they're disturbed that the trial has been conducted in secret.

Klebnikov, who was 41 when he was killed, was an American citizen born to Russian emigrants who'd been a senior editor of Forbes in New York before assuming the editorship of Forbes Russia a few months before his death. He spoke Russian fluently and became attached to his ancestral homeland, despite the corruption he detested and doggedly tried to expose.

The prosecutor's office has said Vakhayev and Dukuzov are part of a Moscow criminal group linked to extortion and contract murders. A third defendant, Fail Sadretdinov of Moscow, is accused of hiring the two for an unrelated murder.

On Thursday, Alexei Brevnov, a spokesman for Klebnikov's family, said Klebnikov's American relatives had faith in the Russian judicial system but didn't accept the government's rationale that the trial had to be closed to protect state secrets.

Brevnov said the victim's family members, who remain in the United States, didn't attend the trial in Moscow City Court but relied on reports from their lawyer, Larisa Maslennikova. Judge Vladimir Usov imposed a gag order on participants.

Klebnikov's relatives, including his brothers Michael and Peter, are expected to hold a news conference in Washington after the verdict, Brevnov said.

Regardless of the jurors' decision, the flawed and secretive process raises questions about whether justice will be achieved, said Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based organization.

"If there is some closed information or classified information, that question can be considered behind closed doors in a day. Why make the whole trial secret?" Panfilov said. "It's impossible for the public to decide how unbiased it was."

Panfilov thinks the official explanation of Klebnikov's murder is implausible and that accusing Chechens, who are an unpopular minority with many Russians, was a convenient way to ensure a conviction. Chechnya is a southern republic where militants have for centuries intermittently taken up arms to break away from Russia and form a separate nation.

Panfilov suggested that investigators didn't want to probe too deeply into the crime.

"This Chechen version is ridiculous to me," he said. "If the Chechens started to kill the authors of bad books, there would be a massacre around us, there are so many bad books."

Panfilov cited the statement of Alexander Gordeyev, a journalist with Russian Newsweek who was at Klebnikov's side when he died. Before succumbing to the gunshot wounds, Gordeyev said, Klebnikov identified his assailants as Russian.

A more plausible motive for the crime, Panfilov said, involves Klebnikov's purported interest in investigating other topics, including the alleged embezzlement of money from the Chechen republic's treasury.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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