MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police named a Chechen man as the alleged mastermind behind the high-profile murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, but the dead politician's supporters said he was only a low-level figure and that a cover-up was underway.
Nemtsov, one of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critics, was shot dead on Feb 27 as he walked across a bridge near the Kremlin. Aged 55, he had been working on a report examining the Russian military's role in the Ukraine crisis. His killing sent a chill through Russian opposition circles.
Police investigators said on Tuesday they planned to charge five men with his contract killing including the suspected trigger man, Zaur Dadayev, a former soldier in Chechnya, who initially confessed to the murder before recanting, saying he had been put under pressure.
Police for the first time also named the alleged mastermind, Ruslan Mukhudinov, a former officer in Chechnya's interior ministry. Police had previously spoken of him as helping organize the crime, but on Tuesday described him as the person who had actually ordered the hit.
His lawyer says there is no solid evidence against him.
"He has been an international fugitive since November 2015," Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, said of Mukhudinov. "His arrest and his reckoning with the criminal charges against him is only a matter of time."
Vadim Prokhorov, a lawyer for the Nemtsov family, said the idea that Mukhudinov was the mastermind was "complete nonsense" and looked like a bad joke.
"That he is one of the low-level organizers is obvious," said Prokhorov. "But the masterminds are highly-placed people."
Zhanna Nemtsova, the dead politician's daughter, said she was disappointed with the development. She has previously said she wants Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, to be questioned about the case.
Mukhudinov once worked as a driver for an associate of Kadyrov's in a Chechen military battalion. Kadyrov, who praised the devotion to Russia of Dadayev, the suspected gunman, after his arrest, has denied any involvement in the Nemtsov murder.
"Let her look for who organized the murder in his circle and not accuse me," Kadyrov told a Russian radio station in October. "I am ... a suspect if you listen to some liberal devils who accuse me of killing Nemtsov. It's total nonsense."
Nemtsova said she would look for international help in solving the case.
"There is no justice in Russia," Nemtsova told Reuters on Tuesday. "It is clear the Russian authorities have no desire to solve the case."
Ilya Yashin, a political ally of the late Nemtsov, said a cover-up was underway.
"If investigators did their work seriously and were not shielding the criminals, Kadyrov and his entourage would have been questioned long ago," said Yashin, saying he deemed it an "open question" whether the Chechen leader was involved.
On the site of Nemtsov's murder, on a bridge near the Kremlin, Muscovites stopped to look at flowers, candles, portraits, icons and messages of admiration for the politician which have been piled up there since his killing.
Mikhail Roslyakov, a 20-year-old student helping to protect the makeshift memorial, said Nemtsov's killing was one in a long line of unsolved murders since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
"History is repeating itself," he said as the mercury dipped below minus seven degrees Celsius and an icy wind from the Moskva river below whipped up.
"It is a traditional situation for us here in Russia. The people who carried out the murder are found and then one of them is declared the mastermind. But the real traces lead elsewhere."
Editing by Anna Willard