The Supreme Court's military bench returned the case against three suspects accused of involvement in Anna Politkovskaya's 2006 killing to prosecutors, the court's press service said. It ordered them to merge that case with the investigation of the alleged gunman and the search for a mastermind, Russian news agencies reported.
The decision reversed a ruling by a lower court that had rejected a request by Politkovskaya's children for a single investigation into her killing. Her family has criticized the prosecution of the suspects in custody, who are accused only of helping set up the slaying, saying justice will not be done until the gunman and the mastermind are caught and punished.
The ruling could increase chances that authorities will eventually determine who was behind Politkovskaya's murder - a crucial question in a country plagued by killings of journalists and activists who criticize or challenge government authorities.
But it is unlikely to dispel persistent concern among colleagues, relatives and rights activists about the government's willingness to conduct a complete, aggressive probe they suspect could lead back to people in power.
Sergei Sokolov, a deputy editor at Politkovskaya's newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the Supreme Court ruling but pessimistic about the possibility that a mastermind will ever face trial.
"We have always wanted a full, wide investigation. I hope the investigative team will take advantage of this ruling," he told The Associated Press.
During her career, Politkovskaya sharply criticized Putin's Kremlin and the Kremlin-backed government of Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars and of widespread rights abuses that the journalist focused on in much of her investigative reporting.
Politkovskaya was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. Her slaying prompted international outrage and deepened tensions between Russia and the West.
Three men accused of helping set up the shooting were acquitted in February after a trial marred from the start by the absence of the suspected gunman and virtual silence from prosecutors on the key issue of who might have been behind the killing.
The Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and preliminary hearings in the men's retrial began last month.
In Thursday's ruling, the court's military branch ordered their case to be merged with the case against the suspected gunman, Rustam Makhmudov, and efforts to determine who was behind the contract-style killing, Russian news agencies reported.
But prosecutors, who had backed the request for further investigation, suggested Thursday's ruling would mean that the trial would be suspended, state-run RIA-Novosti reported. It quoted a representative of the Prosecutor General's office, Vera Pashkovskaya, as saying a trial would likely not be held until Makhmudov, who authorities say has fled Russia, is in custody.
Pashkovskaya vowed prosecutors would seek Makhmudov and try to determine who had Politkovskaya killed, the report said.