MOSCOW – When Boris Nemtsov was shot dead as he walked across a bridge next to the Kremlin, it took 11 minutes before a police car arrived at the scene, according to the time stamp on closed-circuit television footage.
From the moment the 55-year-old former deputy prime minister was shot late on the night of Feb. 27, associates of the Kremlin critic have been asking why the police took so long to get there, and how someone could fire six shots at him in such a heavily monitored location and then get away.
Nemtsov is the most high-profile opposition figure who has been killed during President Vladimir Putin’s 15-year rule. His shooting prompted accusations from Putin opponents and Western states that democratic freedoms in Russia were under attack.
Russian officials have denied any involvement in Nemtsov’s killing. Putin called it a shameful tragedy and demanded a thorough investigation.
Accounts gathered from opposition activists and Nemtsov’s friends raise questions about state security agencies’ actions in the minutes before and after the attack on Nemtsov.
Those sources believe Russian security agencies — which run close surveillance on many prominent opposition figures, especially before protests — were monitoring Nemtsov, who was organizing a rally due to take place two days after the day of his death.
That surveillance, they said, includes the tapping of phone conversations and physically tailing opposition figures. They said they knew of the practice because in the past their telephone conversations had been posted on the Internet.
People with experience of trying to stage protests close to the Kremlin said the area is under 24-hour monitoring from closed-circuit cameras and a heavy concentration of police and security agents, making it one of the most tightly protected places in Russia.
It was not possible to independently establish whether Nemtsov was under surveillance at the time of his killing, or that the area was being monitored by state security. It is possible that surveillance data have been passed to investigators but not made public.
The issue of surveillance may be crucial to understanding who could have killed Nemtsov.
Given the level of security normally in place, the killing could only have been done by trained killers acting with the possible involvement or acquiescence of some part of the security services, say several of Nemtsov’s associates.
That would make less likely some of the lines of inquiry that investigators and officials have mentioned in recent state media reports: that the killing was over Nemtsov’s business dealings or personal life, or was committed by extremists acting on their own initiative.
Individual surveillance, layered on top of the security permanently in place around the Kremlin, would have made an attack like the one on Nemtsov difficult to pull off, say his friends. After he was shot, police or another state security agency should have appeared on the scene much sooner, they said.
In 2013, one of Nemtsov’s fellow opposition activists, Sergei Sharov-Dalaunay, tried to stage an impromptu picket with one other person on Red Square, a few hundred meters from the spot where Nemtsov was killed. In contrast to the 11 minutes it took police to arrive on the night Nemtsov was shot, Sharov-Dalaunay said it took police only seconds to grab him from the moment he unfurled a banner.
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