Thousands of people gathered in the Chechen capital Friday of Grozny on May 20 to protest the acquittal of GRU Captain Eduard Ulman and three subordinates on charges of murdering six Chechen civilians in January 2002. According to Agence France-Presse, some 3,000 people, including young people and members of Chechnya’s pro-Russian administration, took part in the demonstration. Some protesters carried signs saying “Ulman – murderer,” and “Ulman – fascist.”
On May 19, a jury in Rostov-on-Don acquitted Ulman and his three co-defendants – Major Aleksei Perelevsky, Lieutenant Aleksander Kalagansky and Warrant Officer Vladimir Voyevodin – despite the fact that they had admitted shooting the six civilians to death after they drove their van past the commandos’ position in Chechnya’s Shatoi district. As the Moscow Times noted on May 24, the commandos were lying in wait to ambush rebels and opened fire on the van after the driver refused to stop, immediately killing one of the passengers and wounding two. The defendants testified that after discovering that the passengers were unarmed local residents, Ulman radioed his commanders for instructions on what to do and was ordered to finish off the survivors, including a woman and a teenager. They carried out the order and then placed the bodies of all six victims in the van and burned it.
The trial of Captain Ulman and his men was in fact the second go-round: back in December 2003, a Rostov jury had acquitted them, but the Military Collegium of Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and sent the case back for retrial, which began last December at the North Caucasus district military court in Rostov. This time, as before, the jury “unanimously announced that the prosecution was unable to prove in full measure the guilt of the defendants, and that their actions can be viewed as adequate to the circumstances, and dictated by the performance of duty,” Itar-Tass reported. A lawyer for relatives of the six victims said they would appeal the verdict.
Kavkazky Uzel on May 19 quoted the state prosecutor in the Ulman case, Nikolai Titov, as saying: “Any lawyer knows that the decision that the jurors rendered does not answer to the law.” The following day, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov issued his own critique of the verdict. “The decision rendered by the jurors does not answer to the law and there is not a single statute that envisages shooting even prisoners-of-war, let alone civilians,” RIA Novosti quoted him as saying. “Consequently, it is beyond any doubt that the verdict rendered does not adhere to the spirit of the law and that there is bias on the part of the judges and jury.” For his part, First Deputy Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov said the jurors put the Chechen administration in a difficult position by giving society the idea that there is a “complete blindness of the law and an absence of justice” within the judicial branch.
Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights center, said he did not expect the acquittals and was “simply shocked” by the verdict, Interfax reported on May 19. “It follows from the evidence in this criminal case absolutely indisputably that the special-forces personnel deliberately shot the civilians dead, ostensibly as ordered by their superiors,” he said. “If, in this case, trial by jury is the voice of society, as some of my fellow human rights experts affirm, then our society gives the special forces a license to kill.” Orlov added: “A Chechen jury would have found the Ulman group guilty.” Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki group, called the verdict “regrettable.” Echoing Orlov, she added: “I am sure that if the civilians who were killed had not been Chechens, the special-forces personnel would have been given a harsh sentence.”
The Moscow Times took the prosecution to task for not trying to bring to justice those who apparently gave Ulman and his men the order to finish off the victims. “The case has demonstrated that residents of Chechnya cannot hope for safety or for justice, even when their murderers are caught,” the English-language newspaper editorialized on May 24. “Not only did two juries buy the murderers’ explanation that they were following orders, but prosecutors did not bother to determine who, if anyone, gave those orders or attempt to bring him to trial. The federal authorities cannot possibly hope that support for the rebels will wane if servicemen empowered to enforce the law kill innocent people while those responsible for upholding justice give them a free pass.”
Perhaps the harshest overall assessment of the second verdict in the Ulman case came from Novaya gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya. “Two collegiums of Rostov people demonstrated what everyone knew anyway: [that] in Rostov, they don’t consider Chechens as people equal to themselves,” she wrote in the bi-weekly’s May 23 edition. “As to the underlying reason for this decision, that’s it. The Ulman case is simply documentary proof of the existence of a potent regional fascism…A demonstration of the stratification of society into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races. There was lots of talk that the jurors were bought off. But that’s untrue. It needs to be recognized that these are the jurors’ convictions. On two occasions, different [groups of jurors] confirmed an elastic approach to rights on the basis of national characteristics. There is one set of human rights for Rostov-ites and another for Chechens…”
Politkovskaya continued: “Did we really not know this before the Ulman verdict? Of course, we knew. But we hoped it had not gone so deep. We reassured ourselves with the fact that [Yuri] Budanov received a guilty verdict and is in prison. But the tragedy is that during these years, from the Budanov case to the Ulman case, everyday fascism only took further root. And these are the direct consequences of the endless so-called anti-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, which is today nearly six years old. It began supposedly against ‘separatists’. But its ideology, methods and techniques, launched by the Kremlin, became the propagator of real separatism.”
On May 24, the presidium of Chechnya’s State Council said it disagreed “resolutely” with the verdict in the Ulman case and called for it to be nullified and submitted for a retrial, Itar-Tass reported. “Such crimes should be tried at the place where they were committed,” the council said in a statement. “The jury would issue another ruling if people the same nationality as them were victims of the crime. If the murder is proved, the perpetrators are known, punishment should obligatorily follow that.” Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Col.-General Aleksander Savenkov, also criticized the verdict. “I have no doubts that this wrongdoing should be punished,” he said. “The verdict passed by the jury has no relation to the question of justice. This is the issue of the legal conscience of Russians.” No one in Russia doubts that the four servicemen committed a crime, he said, adding: “The defendants also do not deny it.”
Meanwhile, Koka Tuburova, the sister of the driver of the UAZ van who was one of the six Chechens murdered by Ulman and his men, said that if Russia’s Supreme Court upholds the latter’s acquittal, she and her family will emigrate, gazeta.ru reported on May 24. “If the Supreme Court also says that people who shot, blew up and then burned the bodies of six innocent people, are not guilty, then we will be forced to leave Russia, as did the family of Elza Kungaeva,” said Tuburova, referring to the young Chechen woman murdered by Yuri Budanov, “although we cling to our homeland and don’t want to leave it.” The four acquitted GRU officers said they will continue to serve in their unit, Itar-Tass reported on May 19.