Russian Officers Found Not Guilty For Civilian Murders

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 18

In a verdict that casts further grave doubt on the rule of law in Russia, a jury trial before a military court found four Spetsnaz officers not guilty of the murder of six Chechen civilians. The jury concluded that Captain Eduard Ulman and his fellow officers had indeed shot dead the driver and passengers in a civilian automobile in January 2002, and had then set fire to the automobile with their corpses (see Chechnya Weekly, December 3). But according to an April 29 article on the website, the jurors decided that the officers “had not exceeded their authority.”

Lyudmila Tikhomirova, lawyer for the dead Chechens’ relatives, called the verdict “shocking” but added that “frankly, I had expected something like this. One can see this monstrous verdict as in effect providing a license for the murder of peaceful civilians.”

Even Aleksandr Savenkov, chief of the military procuracy, told that he found the verdict self contradictory: On the one hand the jurors accepted as proven the fact that the Spetsnaz unit had killed six civilians, but on the other hand they declared that the accused were not at fault.

Akhmad Kadyrov denounced the verdict even more sharply. In an unusually harsh criticism of the Russian authorities, the head of the pro-Moscow administration in Grozny told the Novosti news agency that the trial’s “unjust” outcome showed “that we Chechens still do not occupy our rightful place among the other peoples and regions of Russia…This will provoke an extremely negative reaction from our people, who are now under Russia’s constitutional jurisdiction but are still not allowed to consider themselves to be real citizens of Russia. The families of the dead will appeal to higher authorities and possibly to international courts – and I, as president of the republic, will certainly help them seek justice.”

On the basic facts of what happened in January 2002, there was remarkably little disagreement. Ulman and his defense lawyer claimed that he and his subordinates opened fire on the civilian vehicle only after its driver disobeyed a hand signal to stop and then ignored a warning shot into the air. The prosecution contended that the Spetsnaz troops opened fire directly on the vehicle without any such warnings. However, both sides acknowledged that most of the vehicles’ passengers were still alive once it finally did stop. After finding that all the passengers were unarmed civilians, one of whom they had killed and two wounded with their first burst of gunfire, the Spetsnaz unit radioed to higher command for further instructions. They were ordered to kill all the remaining passengers and destroy the evidence – an order that they proceeded to obey.

Even if one accepts the defense’s claim that the Chechen driver ignored Ulman’s command to stop and that he and his troops had both a right and a duty to open fire, the Spetsnaz unit’s subsequent behavior would seem to leave little room for doubt. With no possibility of fearing any threat from the surviving passengers, the Russian troops systematically and cold bloodedly shot every one of them. They then placed explosives in the dead Chechens’ vehicle to destroy it; after the explosives failed to work, the Spetsnaz doused the vehicle with gasoline and set it afire.

The defense relied heavily on an argument that has probably been used more often than any other by war criminals all over the world: “I was only following orders.” According to an April 30 account on the website, the defense insisted that if the Spetsnaz officers had not obeyed the order to commit murder, they themselves would have faced a military trial and heavy penalties.

Russia’s criminal code clearly states in Article 42 that a criminal act should still be considered illegal even if it is performed in obedience to an order that is itself criminal. Nevertheless, the Russian government’s failure to obey its own laws is so widespread that it is reasonable to think that Ulman would indeed have faced punishment simply for acting in accordance with Article 42. Major Aleksei Perelevsky, who gave Ulman the radio order to kill the surviving passengers, claimed that he was only transmitting an order from a still higher level in the chain of command; he also was found not guilty.

There is no evidence from the published reports of the trial indicating that the authorities made any serious effort to bring to justice the officer who issued that order to Perelevsky. Most of the Russian media did not even mention that officer’s name; an exception was Izvestia, in which an April 29 article by Yelena Stroiteleva noted that “the order to kill the unarmed Chechens was given by a Colonel V.V. Plotnikov, but he was not even summoned to the court as a witness.”

In a May 2 talk show on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta was asked why no charges where filed against Plotnikov. The reason, said Politkovskaya, was simply “that he categorically refused. He said that nothing of the kind had happened, that he had not given any such order, that Perelevsky himself had made the decision. Moreover, he had witnesses. They simply rescued Plotnikov from the blow which threatened him.” When asked just who it was who had rescued him, she answered, “I think it was the military command at Khankala…because he is a colonel, an important person.”

According to the report by Arkady Yuzhny, the court in the southern city of Rostov-on-the-Don presented the jurors with thirty-five separate questions for which they had to decide on either “yes” or “no” answers. In Yuzhny’s words, “the questions were so complicated, confused and ambiguous that Judge Aleksandr Kargin spent more than three hours on his final instructions to the jury, explaining in detail what they were to do and how they were to state their verdict in proper form.”

When Ulman was released after the jury announced its verdict, some of the jury’s members applauded in the courtroom, according to an April 30 article in the Los Angeles Times. The Stroiteleva article in Izvestia reported several parallels with last year’s trial of Yury Budanov (see Chechnya Weekly, July 31). Both trials saw the mounting of demonstrations outside the courthouse by ultra-nationalists, shouting “Glory to Russia!” – and the presentation of flowers to the accused by their sympathizers.

The institution of jury trials is still a novelty in post-Soviet Russia, considered a victory for the rule of law after decades of “telephone justice” in which judges would obediently produce whatever verdicts were ordered by the Communist Party leadership. After the startling outcome of the Rostov trial, reformers now have reason to fear that this new institution will sometimes undermine rather than serve justice. If juries are going to be guided by militarism, xenophobia and other popular prejudices rather than by the facts before them, the path of legal reform is going to be even longer and harder than expected.

Politkovskaya sadly acknowledged on the Ekho Moskvy talk show that juries simply reflect society as a whole. The outcome of the trial, she said, “does not mean that the institution of the jury trial is itself discredited. What is discredited is our society…the condition in which we now find ourselves.”

The chief military prosecutor Savenkov eventually told the news agency Novosti – perhaps in reaction to the public outcry – that the court’s verdict would be appealed. “In Russia there is not and cannot be any law allowing one to murder peaceful citizens without being punished,” he said.