Lionel Blackman reviews ‘The February 2015 Assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the Flawed Trial of His Alleged Killers’ by John B. Dunlop

26 January 2021

By Lionel Blackman

Lionel Blackman reviews The February 2015 Assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the Flawed Trial of His Alleged Killers. An Exploration of Russia’s “Crime of the 21st Century” by John B. Dunlop. 208pp ISBN-9783838211886 (Ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2019)

The murder of Boris Nemtsov on a bridge in the heart of Moscow on 27th February 2015 has generated many explanations about the who and the why. This book gives a fair airing to several theories.

1. Chechens fighting for Ukrainians against Russians intending world opinion would believe Putin was behind Nemtsov’s murder and thereby discredit Putin.

2. Chechens in league with Putin’s Chechen Presidential appointee Kadyrov with the connivance of Russian state security.

3. Chechens in league with Kadyrov with Russian state security mere routine onlookers shadowing Nemtsov’s movement and turning a blind eye to what the Chechen murderers were up to.

4. None of the above. The Chechens were set up and the whole thing was down to Russian state security forces.

What all unofficial investigators and theorists, including John Dunlop, agree upon is that banks of useful cctv in the high security area in which the dreadful deed took place would have thrown substantial light on the who and how and thus perhaps more of the why. However, remarkably few video tapes from key cameras known to be in useful locations were disclosed. Mr Dunlop tellingly contrasts this Russian investigation with the superb cctv “storyboard” the British police compiled proving the guilt of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov in the Skripal case.

An enormous amount of heat and confusion has arisen from the intervention of a garbage/road-sweeping truck crossing the bridge. It so happened to come between a cctv camera located a distance away on the wall of an independent television company building and the victim and at that moment it is obvious he must have been shot. 

To commit the murder as close as possible to the Kremlin, presumably for its chilling symbolic value (otherwise why not wait until Nemtsov was in a less guarded place?), and avoid all detection would have required a major operation to ensure: no cars with dashcams passed at the key moment, all state controlled cctv cameras were ineffective or suppressed, knowledge of the field of view of the independent TV station camera and split-second timing of the travel of the garbage truck, AND an assumption that Nemtsov and his companion wouldn’t change their direction or stop on or before the bridge and summon his chauffered car!

The TV station cctv footage does show a suspicious gap in general traffic when the getaway vehicle is trailing behind the garbage truck. However, the full footage indicates similar but perhaps shorter gaps at other times. Perhaps consistent with the ebb and flow that arises from red lights operating downstream a traffic artery. The exhaust from the getaway vehicle billows in fury as general traffic in fact wheels close behind. The theory that the risk of dashcam detection on the bridge was eliminated by state sponsored traffic stoppage near its entrances has no direct evidence. Moreover, innocent dashcams would have covered the stoppages, and how would you have stopped that?

The truck is unlikely to have been the murderer/s’ transportation. Useless as a getaway vehicle. Though slow moving (about 8.5 km an hour) nevertheless the assassin would have had to jump out of it. The truck stops after Nemtsov is shot. Moreover, Nemtsov’s female companion went to the truck for help. Identification of the carriage to the scene is as useful evidence as the getaway vehicle. So why use a truck for the former and a different vehicle for the latter? The book discusses whether there was more than one shooter involved. The murderer/s must have been laying in wait in the shadows somewhere on or near the bridge. Note only one person is spirited away in the getaway vehicle.

It seems to be very doubtful that conspirators would go the lengths of deploying the truck to conceal the act when using in full view a getaway car that could be spotted by innumerable state and independent cctv on its route out somewhere. If the conspirators were meticulously planning the covering of their tracks then would not the murderer/s have disappeared from wherever he/they had come from onto the bridge in the first place?

Most murder cases are proven on circumstantial evidence. You are going to be found guilty if caught leaving the scene (where there is no other explanation to being the murderer) as much as if seen doing the deed. The getaway behaviour does not seem to me to be consistent with a meticulously planned “perfect” murder. Not that it has to be for state security personnel to be involved. There can be inconsistencies in criminals’ plans. When analysing crimes one must not always apply logic. 

If this was a work of fiction I would say I enjoyed it. If the murder had taken place a hundred years ago I would say it was fascinating. That the events took place only 6 years ago and with the 2006 murder of Litvinenko, the subsequent attempted assassinations of Skripal and Navalny, I say I found it disturbing. The book lays bare the lack of independence in the investigation and judiciary. Keystones of any truly free society.

The book could have been better organised. I found it necessary to constantly shift back and forth to make sense of who was who when characters involved (and there are many of them) are first introduced without context. However, I would not wish to discourage anyone reading it as Mr Dunlop has tackled a fiendishly complex web of evidence and theories; and he has done so sufficiently to allow individual reader-jurors in the court of public opinion to reach their own reasonable conclusions on the why. Jurors maybe assisted by evidence of “propensity”. Say no more.

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