Zhanna Nemtsova: Why We May Never Know Who Killed My Father Boris

Zhanna Nemtsova
Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Berlin, November 25, 2015. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Last month, five men accused of murdering my father Boris Nemtsov went on trial in a Russian military court.

An opposition leader in Russia who was once the government’s first deputy prime minister, Nemtsov was shot dead in February 2015 while walking home at night on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge, just 200 meters from the Kremlin in central Moscow.

From the moments after I learned about the murder, I realized that there wouldn’t be a thorough and objective investigation of this cruel crime that took the most important person in my life—my father. He was the most consistent and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and his regime. So, regardless of the establishment’s role in his murder—either in organizing or masterminding it—those truly responsible will remain free as long as the current government is in place. This is the Russian system; it is based on the cover-up.

The investigation has been ongoing for more than a year-and-a-half and, all the while, has proven what I feared. It has failed to identify those truly responsible. It has even failed to answer the question “Why was Boris Nemtsov killed?”

Perhaps, it is because the Russian authorities refuse to acknowledge that the murder was politically motivated. The prosecutors openly declined my claim to qualify his murder as political. Such an acknowledgment on their part would be an indictment of the authorities—and it would mean that Russia is persecuting dissidents who freely express their views. I soon realized that as a “victim”—my official status in the case—I had no way of getting closer to the truth. The investigative process is deliberately non-transparent.

Using bureaucratic trickery, the investigators have split the criminal case into two parts: the first to try and identify the perpetrators, and the second to identify those who masterminded and planned the crime. At the moment, the first case is closed and has been passed on to the courts; the second is stuck with the Investigative Committee of Russia. The authorities assume that we should be fully satisfied seeing the alleged perpetrators of the murder on trial. Perhaps then, they hope, we will not push so hard to know who ordered the kill. This situation is not unique.

Independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered ten years ago and those responsible have not been identified. The only real international controlling tool over the “investigation” can be a specially designated reporter appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which includes Russia. On January 25, I addressed PACE—with the help of Kerstin Lundgren, vice-president of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)—and asked it to appoint a reporter to investigate the killing of my father and present the case to the assembly. This motion for resolution was approved and signed by over 60 deputies.

It is now November and PACE has had its winter, spring, summer and autumn sessions and still no special reporter has been appointed. I have been told by parliamentarians that this matter has been repeatedly delayed due to the Russian delegation’s absence. This seems like a weak excuse to me—the delegation lost its voting rights as part of sanctions imposed on Russia due to the conflict in Ukraine and no longer attends sessions in Strasbourg, although it could sit in.

Sadly, the 30,000 Russians who strive to know the truth and signed a petition to launch an international investigation into Boris Nemtsov’s death have also been ignored. Perhaps, the deliberate failure to appoint a reporter is the conscious position of PACE President Pedro Agramunt, who has been accused of having a close relationship with the Azerbaijani authorities. Some might say he is ignoring Russia’s violations of both international law and human rights and prefers to shake hands with Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Council of the Russian Federation—the upper chamber of the parliament of Russia—instead of asking her questions.

I would like to remind Agramunt of the founding document of the Council of Europe—the European Convention on Human Rights. This is PACE’s real role. Any deviations from the important principles of humanism can be a short-term win, but add up to fragile victories that turn into defeat in the long run.

Lastly, the world knows who downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over east Ukraine. Likewise, the world knows that Putin supports the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad using all his resources—at a horrendous cost to civilian life. And yet the world does not seem to know how we allowed all of that to happen in the first place. As Andrei Sakharov, the respected Russian scientist and human rights champion, used to say: “One should always behave in line with his principles.” If the civilized world starts following this advice, we can save many lives and make sure my father did not lose his in vain.

Zhanna Nemtsova is a journalist for German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and the founder of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.