A Moscow court reversed itself Wednesday and barred the public and media from the trial of three men accused of murdering investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya after jurors complained press coverage could put them risk.
The decision was a blow for relatives and rights groups hoping public scrutiny would yield new information about the killing.
Politkovskaya embarrassed the Kremlin with her reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya. Her execution-style murder in her Moscow apartment building in 2006 sparked international outrage and renewed fears about the safety of journalists working in Russia.
The Moscow District Military Court made the decision after jurors refused to enter the courtroom because they feared media coverage would bring them wide public attention, Politkovskaya family lawyer Karinna Moskalenko said.
The courtroom Wednesday was filled with print reporters, photographers and television cameras.
No explanation offered
Moskalenko said there had been no "real threats" against the 12 jurors and the court's presiding judge did not offer any explanation for the ruling.
"We understand the jurors' possible concerns and respect their mission, but making this decision in the absence of real threats means the failure to observe the law," she said in a telephone interview.
Defence lawyers often charge that security agencies place operatives on juries to intimidate panel members and sway their decisions. Allegations about other types of jury intimidation are relatively unusual.
The decision reverses the ruling the court made Monday ordering the trial be open to the public.
Politkovskaya's relatives, rights groups and journalism advocates have pushed strongly for the trial to be heard in public, hoping it would open the much-criticized investigation of the 2006 murder to scrutiny and yield more information.
The man accused of shooting Politkovskaya, Rustam Makhmudov, has fled the country. The three men being tried on murder charges are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former Moscow police officer and Makhmudov's brothers, Ibragim and Dzhabrail.
The case was being heard in a military court because a fourth defendant is a federal security service officer. He is accused of criminal links to Khadzhikurbanov, but has not been charged in Politkovskaya's killing.
Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Politkovskaya's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, called the ruling "shameful.
"It's a decision that denies society the ability to acquaint itself with the operations of the special service, the police, the Federal Security Service. It's awful," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "It suits absolutely no one."
Vladimir Putin, president at the time of Politkovskaya's murder, and Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika described her killing as a plot to discredit Russia, saying the investigation would lead to a mastermind abroad.
Dozen journalists killed contract style in 8 years
Last year, Chaika said Politkovskaya's killing was organized by a Moscow-based criminal group that specialized in contract killings and was led by an ethnic Chechen.
More than a dozen journalists have been killed in contract-style slayings since 2000 and many more have been assaulted or threatened. Few suspects have been prosecuted.
Last week, a newspaper reporter was brutally beaten and found unconscious near his home in a district outside Moscow.
Mikhail Beketov, editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, remained in a coma Wednesday in critical condition and relatives said he was unlikely to survive.
Colleagues have said Beketov had been repeatedly threatened for his reports on illegal timber harvesting in Moscow region forests. No suspects have been detained.