By NATALIYA VASILYEVA , Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — A jury convicted five men Thursday in the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on a bridge near the Kremlin two years ago, ending a trial that his supporters said had failed to bring the true masterminds of the brazen killing to justice.
The shooting death so close to Red Square sent shockwaves through the Russian opposition, which had looked to the former deputy prime minister and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin as a rising reformer who could negotiate with authorities.
After two days of deliberations at the end of a nine-month trial, the jury at a Moscow court found Zaur Dadayev guilty of killing Nemtsov. Dadayev was a former officer in the security forces of Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Four other men were convicted of involvement in the killing.
Prosecutors said the four helped obtain the murder weapons and drove the shooter to the crime scene. Investigators said they never established who ordered Nemtsov's assassination.
Prosecutors are expected to announce the sentences they are seeking at a hearing next week.
Nemtsov, 55, was shot late on the night of Feb. 27, 2015, as he was walking across the Bolshoy Moskovetsky Bridge just outside the Kremlin. A few hours before his death, he had conducted a radio interview in which he denounced Putin for his "mad, aggressive" policies in the Ukraine crisis.
The images of Nemtsov's body lying on the sidewalk with the domes of St. Basil's Cathedral towering behind sent a chilling message to many in the opposition, who had faced persecution and arrests, of just how precarious their position was.
Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov's close ally, echoed that sentiment after the verdict.
"Political murders in Russia will continue if the masterminds of this attack are able to get away with this," Yashin told reporters.
Nemtsov's killing was the biggest political assassination in Russia since 2006, when another Kremlin foe, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Putin's birthday. Five Chechens were convicted in the case but it has been unclear who ordered the killing.
The site on the bridge where Nemtsov was killed has become a shrine, with supporters placing candles, fresh flowers and framed photos of the politician on the sidewalk where he fell.
Following Putin's call for a full probe, investigators quickly tracked down several people linked to the killing, all from Chechnya. The suspected triggerman was an officer in Kadyrov's much-feared security force, and one of his suspected accomplices — another senior officer in the Chechen police — was related to some of Kadyrov's top lieutenants.
Despite the mounting pressure to include Kadyrov in the investigation, Putin stood by him and the inquiry went nowhere. Key suspects have disappeared, reportedly whisked abroad, and the investigators have failed to identify the organizers.
Nemtsov's allies and relatives criticized Russia's Investigative Committee, which looks into high-profile crimes, for stopping short of studying any possible role by Kadyrov and top Chechen officers.
When Dadayev was arrested shortly after the killing, Kadyrov vehemently defended him as a "true patriot."
Nemtsov's allies have blamed the killing on Kadyrov, who has been accused in the southern republic of human rights violations, including torture and killings, saying the officers could not have acted without his explicit orders. Kadyrov denied any role in the assassination.
Nemtsov's eldest daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, said in a Facebook post after the verdict that "the case remains unsolved."
"Investigators and the court clearly did not want to uncover the truth about this crime," Nemtsova said, noting that no high-profile Chechen officials were even questioned.
"There was only one task: Find the triggerman and hold a trial. They did just that. But we will continue to fight for the truth by any means we have," she said.
Nemtsov's family petitioned investigators to look into Kadyrov's possible involvement and to question Ruslan Geremeyev, commander of the police unit in which Dadayev served.
The commander was summoned to testify, but he failed to show up. Investigators told the court last year that they visited Geremeyev's property in Chechnya but "no one opened the door."
Dadayev and the other men confessed soon after they were arrested. They later retracted their confessions, saying they had been coerced.
Asked if the investigation should be resumed, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies Thursday evening that "this is not the Kremlin's issue."