Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former Moscow police officer, sits behind bars at a court room in Moscow on Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The suspects being tried on murder charges are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov _ a former Moscow police officer _ and Makhmudov's brothers, Ibragim and Dzhabrail. A Russian court ruled Monday that the trial of three men accused of involvement in the slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya should be open to the public. (AP Photo/ Sergey Ponomarev)
CNN  — 

A former Russian detective convicted for his role in orchestrating the 2006 assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya has been pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin after being recruited to fight in Ukraine, his lawyer told state media TASS.

Sergey Khadzhikurbanov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for organizing the killing of Politkovskaya, a columnist for the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and one of the Kremlin’s fiercest critics, who was shot dead in Moscow on October 7, 2006 – Putin’s birthday.

Khadzhikurbanov’s lawyer, Alexey Mikhalchik, told TASS on Monday that his client had “signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense, subsequently receiving a pardon from President [Putin].”

Mikhalchik said after the completion of his initial contract with the Russian military, Khadzhikurbanov had continued to serve and currently holds a “leadership position” in one of the combat units after being offered a new contract.

Khadzhikurbanov, formerly a Moscow police officer, was sentenced in 2014 by a Moscow court for his role in Politkovskaya’s murder. Before being pardoned by Putin, his original prison term was due to conclude in 2034.

Throughout his trial, Khadzhikurbanov insisted on his innocence, but a spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta told CNN Monday that his involvement in the murder remains indisputable.

The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta’s editorial board and members of journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s family issued a joint statement Tuesday condemning Khadzhikurbanov’s release. “The state has long ceased to guard the law but uses this law according to its own perverted understanding. [It] hands down 25 years for beliefs and pardons murderers who are in demand by this state,” the statement reads.

“For us, this ‘pardoning’ is not proof of the killer’s atonement and repentance. This is a monstrous fact of injustice and arbitrariness, an outrage against the memory of a person killed for her beliefs and for performing her professional duty,” it added.

Russia has been recruiting ex-convicts as foot soldiers as it attempts to bolster its invasion of Ukraine, which has turned into a grueling war of attrition that has lasted more than 20 months.

Memorial event to honour journalist Anna Politkovskaya at the Solovetsky stone on Troitskaya Square. A Novaya Gazeta columnist was shot dead in the elevator of her way home on October 7, 2006. Six people were convicted. October 07, 2020. Russia, St Petersbourg Photo credit: David Frenkel'/Kommersant/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

The recruitment campaign began under Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious head of the private military company Wagner, who worked to enlist between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from jails across Russia over the first year of the war.

Prigozhin led an abortive mutiny in June, when he rallied his Wagner fighters to march on Moscow, sweeping nearly 1,000 kilometers in a day from near the border with Ukraine towards the Russian capital, before abruptly calling for his troops to stand down. Two months to the day after his attempted mutiny, Prigozhin was killed in a mysterious plane crash in August.

During a press conference last Friday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russia’s practice of recruiting and pardoning convicts was ongoing. He said convicts could obtain a pardon even for “serious crimes” if they atone for them “with blood.”

Former convicts can “atone with blood on the battlefield, in assault brigades, under bullets, under shells,” Peskov told reporters, commenting on another case of a former convicted murderer who was pardoned by Putin.