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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan War Veterans Acquitted

A military court Friday acquitted three Afghan war veterans accused of killing 14 people in the Kotlyarskoye Cemetery blast in a case highlighting police use of force and intimidation to wrest false confessions.

In the verdict, Judge Vladimir Serdyukov said former paratroopers Andrei Anokhin and Mikhail Smurov were driven by "fear for their lives and the lives of their relatives" when they falsely confessed to carrying out the bombing Nov. 10, 1996.

The judge also said the details of their confessions were not substantiated by evidence.

The two veterans and the third defendant, Valery Radchikov, were released Friday after almost three years in jail.

Anokhin and Smurov confessed while in police custody soon after their arrest in April 1997. They claimed that Radchikov, a former commando of GRU military intelligence who at the time of the cemetery bombing headed an Afghan veterans group, had ordered the contract hit to kill the head of a rival veterans fund. The two funds were fighting over lucrative tax-free import privileges.

In their confessions, which were written the same day but in different police cells, Anokhin and Smurov said Radchikov paid them $60,000 to kill his rival, Sergei Trakhirov.

Once out of police hands and on trial, Smurov and Anokhin retracted their statements, saying they had been drugged, threatened with rape and beaten by police detectives.

Analysis of the physical evidence substantiated their claims that the confessions were false, the judge said.

Investigators, he said, determined that the bomb consisted of TNT sticks that were planted in a pit 60 centimeters deep, whereas Anokhin and Smurov said they had placed the explosives in a metal box and dug into the frozen ground only deep enough to cover it with a thin layer of sand.

Vladimir Danilov, a senior investigator with the Prosecutor General's Office who handled the case, insisted Friday that he had gathered sufficient evidence to convict the men. He refused to comment specifically on the verdict.

Army General Anatoly Kulikov, who headed the Interior Ministry at the time of the cemetery blast, said "legal glitches" prevented the court of the Moscow military district from convicting the trio, Interfax reported.

Kulikov, who once publicly declared that it was a matter of honor for him to find the killers and who had more than 200 detectives working on the case, said despite Friday's ruling he still believes "the crime has been resolved."

Vera Sinitsa, a lawyer with the All-Russian Public Organization of Afghan War Invalids headed by Trakhirov before his death, said Friday's verdict did not come as a surprise.

"I was not much surprised after having seen how all the evidence collected by police fell apart in court," Sinitsa said after the three defendants had walked free from the Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility.

She insisted the Prosecutor General's Office reopen the investigation.

"Someone must have blown up that bomb. ... It was not done by aliens after all, and they have to be found," Sinitsa said.

Radchikov, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, said he may file suit against the officers of the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General's Office who linked him, Anokhin and Smurov to the bombing and kept them in custody for almost three years.