MOSCOW: Khamzat Bakhayev, second left, Temirlan Eskerkhanov, center, and Shadid Gubashev, listen to the sentence in a court room in Moscow, Russia yesterday. — AP

MOSCOW: A Russian court yesterday handed lengthy jail terms to five Chechen men convicted of the contract killing of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov as his allies insisted the masterminds remained unidentified. Zaur Dadayev, who carried out the shooting, was sentenced to 20 years in prison while four other defendants were jailed for between 11 and 19 years, judge Yury Zhitnikov told the Moscow courtroom after a lengthy trial by jury.

The prosecutor had asked for longer sentences for all the defendants including life in jail for Dadayev-a former internal troop officer in Russia's Chechnya region.

A jury in June found all five guilty of carrying out the hit for a fee of $250,000 (220,000 euros) after a marathon trial that Nemtsov's supporters say failed to unmask those who ordered the killing. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down just meters from the Kremlin as he walked home with his girlfriend on the evening of February 27, 2015. The brazen murder in central Moscow was the most high-profile political killing in Russia since Putin rose to power some 17 years ago.

Those convicted-Dadayev, brothers Shadid and Anzor Gubashev, Temirlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhayev -- are all ethnic Chechens from Russia's volatile North Caucasus. Nemtsov's family and supporters say that people close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who were linked to the murder have not been investigated. During the trial the judge refused a request to summon Kadyrov for questioning. "Neither the organizers nor the masterminds were in the dock," lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, representing Nemtsov's daughter, told journalists after the sentencing.

"No one any longer doubts that the trail leads to the close circle of Ramzan Kadyrov. The trail leads at least as far as Grozny, and perhaps higher," he said, hinting at complicity from top Russian officials. Nemtsov's close ally, opposition politician Ilya Yashin, slammed the sentence for Dadayev and said "it's impossible to consider the crime solved while the masterminds and organizers are still at liberty." "We expected a life sentence for Dadayev. What is 20 years for a human life?" he said.


The convicted men have always denied they were involved in the killing and several retracted initial confessions they said were made under torture. During the sentencing, Eskerkhanov exhaled on the glass window of the enclosure where the defendants were being held and wrote with his finger "lie," while the men's relatives wept in the courtroom. Investigators have said the case is still ongoing over a suspected organizer who has fled.

The suspect, Ruslan Mukhudinov, was the driver of the Chechen interior ministry commander under whom the gunman Dadayev served. Investigators said Mukhudinov offered the defendants the money for the murder but they never explained why the low-ranking official would have wanted Nemtsov dead or from where he got the funds. In a statement after the sentencing at Moscow district military court, Russia's Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said it was continuing "to gather evidence on the organizers of the Nemtsov murder."--AFP