Could the trial of GRU spetsnaz commandos for murdering Chechen civilians become another Budanov case (see Chechnya Weekly, July 31)? In a November 20 article for Novaya gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya reported that the two-year-old murder was typical except for one thing: A federal officer also serving in Chechnya helped identify and indict the apparent perpetrators. Nevertheless, the central military-justice bureaucracy back in Moscow has apparently gone out of its way to shield them.
Three of the four Russian officers now facing trial in the southern city of Rostov on the Don–Captain Eduard Ulman, Lieutenant Aleksandr Kalagansky and Ensign Vladimir Voevodin–were landed by helicopter along with seven other GRU commandos in January of 2002 near the village of Dai in southern Chechnya’s Shatoi district. They were hunting the notorious Arab warlord Khattab, who was said to have been wounded and to be hiding somewhere in that area. Though they failed to find Khattab, they did come across a civilian micro-bus, a shuttle driven by one Khamzat Tuburov that carried passengers every day along a fixed route between Shatoi and Dagestan. On that occasion Tuburov was carrying five passengers, including a pregnant woman and a 68-year-old school principal.
According to Politkovskaya, the spetsnaz patrol shot and killed all six of these Chechen civilians, then incinerated five of the bodies. The sixth was the pregnant woman’s nephew, who managed to run far enough away before being gunned down that the commandos apparently did not want to take the trouble to trudge through the deep snow and retrieve his body as well.
This sort of atrocity is not unusual in Chechnya, but what happened next was an extreme rarity. When another Russian patrol in the area found the cremated bodies, its commander, Major Vitaly Nevmerzhitsky, took immediate steps to bring the murderers to justice. Major Nevmerzhitsky, deputy head of the military command for the Shatoi district, had already seen Ulman’s unit in the area; he saw to it that the suspects were arrested and the murder site thoroughly examined. In another rare step, Colonel Andrei Vershinin of the military procuracy then not only launched a criminal investigation but went out of his way to make sure that the accused were not quickly transferred to various garrisons scattered across Russia, as has usually happened in such cases.
On the other hand, Politkovskaya accuses the military procuracy’s main headquarters in Moscow of trying to spare the murderers. Kalagansky and Voevodin, according to her account, were released from pre-trial detention in November of 2002. While awaiting trial they are now serving not in some remote Siberian garrison but in Shchelkovo in the Moscow suburbs, a duty station highly coveted by GRU troops.
Andrei Kryukov provided an eyewitness account of the trial in a November 21 article for Novye izvestia. The guilt or innocence of the accused officers is to be decided by the military court for the north Caucasus okrug. This is the same court that convicted Budanov in July. According to Kryukov’s account, and in contradiction to Politkovskaya’s, the defendants also include Major Aleksei Perelevsky–who was not present at the scene of the murder but who allegedly ordered it in a radio conversation with Ulman’s patrol.
The prosecution told the court at its November 20 hearing that the federal patrol did not immediately kill all the civilian vehicle’s occupants: When Ulman and his troops first opened fire, only one of the passengers was killed. The federal patrol proceeded to inspect the micro-bus and its occupants, none of whom turned out to be armed. It was only then, according to the prosecution, that the federal troops tried to conceal their crime by killing the survivors, pouring gasoline over their bodies and igniting it. Ulman and his two subordinates claim that they did this only after seeking and getting instructions by radio from Perelevsky. Thus the three federal officers apparently plan to use one of the most common defenses of war criminals: They were only following orders.
The prosecuting attorney also read to the court a statement from the FSB confirming that Russia’s security agencies had no information linking any of the slain Chechens to “illegal armed formations” (the standard federal formula for rebel guerrilla units in Chechnya). According to Kryukov, “the lawyers for the defendants almost did not bother the prosecution witnesses [relatives of the dead victims] with questions. Clearly it was not their day.”
Even if the trial of the three officers leads to a just verdict, one will still be entitled to ask whether the Russian authorities are willing and able to conduct more than one such case per year, as compared with the hundreds of episodes of kidnapping, torture and extra-judicial execution known to have taken place in Chechnya.