MOSCOW -- A Russian ultranationalist was sentenced to life in prison, and his girlfriend received an 18-year sentence Friday for the brazen daylight killing of a prominent human rights lawyer and an independent reporter.
The double killing sent shockwaves through Russia's beleaguered human rights community and triggered a government crackdown on far-right and neo-Nazis groups that had gained popularity in recent years.
Nikita Tikhonov, 31, received the maximum sentence after the court convicted him of gunning down lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. Tikhonov's 26-year-old girlfriend, Yevgenia Khasis, was convicted as an accomplice in the January 2009 attack, and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
A jury ruled last week that Tikhonov was the masked killer who used a 1910 Browning pistol to shoot Markelov and Baburova as they walked out of a press conference into a snowy street near the Kremlin. Khasis followed the two from the conference hall and helped Tikhonov identify the lawyer and the reporter, who wore heavy winter clothes and hats.
The defendants, who denied the charges, smiled from their courtroom cage as the judge read aloud the sentence, appearing uninterested at times and whispering to each other throughout. They were convicted last week.
Judge Alexander Zamashnyuk said the defendants were "led by the idea of their own superiority and ideological hatred toward Markelov."
Tikhonov, with tattooed Celtic symbols on his arms and bandages on his wrists, shouted to the judge that he "understood the sentence." Last week, he and Khasis slit their wrists in what a senior prosecutor called an "imitation of suicide." Celtic imagery is popular among Russian neo-Nazis, with the Celtic cross thought to be a substitute for the Swastika.
"We will come out much earlier," Tikhonov said as police escorted him and Khasis out of the courtroom.
Defense lawyer Alexander Vasilyev called the sentence "illegal and unfounded," and said he would appeal, while senior prosecutor Boris Laktionov said he was "satisfied" with the outcome.
The 34-year-old Markelov's work had angered nationalists, who had threatened him and cheered his killing in Internet comments. The lawyer also had made enemies through his work fighting for victims of rights abuses in Chechnya.
Investigators said Baburova, 25, was shot because she was a witness to the murder.
Tikhonov, the son of a counterintelligence officer, joined ultranationalist groups while studying history at Moscow State University, where he wrote a thesis on the "genocide" of ethnic Russians in Chechnya.
Police tracked down Tikhonov and Khasis by their messages on Internet forums and tapped their phones months ahead of their arrest in November 2009. In their rented Moscow apartment, investigators said the two kept an arsenal of arms and explosives, books on criminal justice and firearms, as well as detailed plans by ultranationalist groups for seizing power in Russia.
Tikhonov immediately confessed to the killing, but later said he was forced to confess because police threatened to abuse Khasis.
Two prominent ultranationalists testified against him during the 2 1/2-month trial, with one of them alleging that Tikhonov planned further killings of government officials and anti-racist activists.
Russia has seen a string of contract-style killings of human rights workers and journalists in recent years – few of them ever solved.
Racially motivated attacks that often target labor migrants from Russia's Caucasus and ex-Soviet Central Asia peaked in 2008, when 110 people were killed and 487 wounded, according to independent watchdog Sova. The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights estimated that some 70,000 neo-Nazis were active in Russia, compared with just a few thousand in the early 1990s.
Markelov's 2009 killing marked a tactical change for neo-Nazis and ultranationalists, who switched to killings of anti-racist activists and government officials and terrorist attacks, watchdog Sova said.
In April 2010, a federal judge who presided over trials of White Wolves, a mostly teenage group of skinheads convicted of killing and assaulting non-Slavs, was gunned down contract-style outside his Moscow apartment.
Members of a neo-Nazi group accused of planning to blow up a mosque, a McDonald's restaurant and railway stations in Moscow are currently standing trial.