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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

4 Soldiers Convicted in Chechen Murders

Itar-TassMajor Alexei Perelevsky attending his trial Thursday in Rostov-on-Don. He and three other soliders were convicted of killing six Chechens and sentenced to prison terms. The other defendants, however, are missing. Story, Page 3.
ROSTOV-ON-DON -- A military court on Thursday convicted four soldiers of the murders of six civilians in Chechnya, a verdict that followed two previous acquittals and the disappearance of three of the defendants.

The case has been followed closely in Chechnya, where many are outraged that no one has been brought to justice for the killing of a driver and five passengers of a truck in January 2002.

A three-judge panel at southern Russia's top military court sentenced Captain Eduard Ulman to 14 years in prison and handed down sentences of nine, 11 and 12 years to three subordinates who were also tried.

Ulman and two other defendants have been missing since they failed to show up for hearings in April, deepening the sense of injustice among relatives of the victims.

"We are satisfied with the guilty verdict, but of course we are dissatisfied that it cannot be implemented immediately," Murad Musayev, a lawyer for victims' relatives, said on NTV television.

Defense lawyers and the fourth defendant have said they do not know the whereabouts of the three. The lawyers promised to appeal Thursday's ruling.

The acquittals in previous trials prompted protest rallies in Chechnya and criticism from Chechen leaders of the region's Moscow-backed government.

Chechnya's ombudsman, Nurdi Mukhazhiyev, said the defendants deserved at least 20 years and possibly life in prison, Interfax reported. "The courts still have a biased attitude toward servicemen and Chechens. Whenever they try a resident of the Chechen republic, they sentence him to 20 to 25 years or life, even if he confesses after torture," he said.

Prosecutors had requested sentences of 18 to 23 years.

Nationalist State Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin, meanwhile, suggested the verdict was politically motivated -- predetermined by the federal government's desire to please the allies it relies on to rule Chechnya, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. Rogozin also said it was "absolutely possible" the defendants were abducted or killed.

Victims' relatives say they believe that Ulman and the other two have gone into hiding to avoid the trial and that their absence was an admission of guilt.

Oleg Orlov, head of the human rights group Memorial, called the verdict significant. "Nevertheless, there are many other wartime crimes in Chechnya in which those responsible have yet to be brought to justice," he said.

Two separate juries had acquitted the men, who claimed they were following orders, but the acquittals have been overturned by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can throw out acquittals on procedural grounds.

During the first trial, defense lawyer Alexei Ulyanov said the killings occurred when the driver of a suspicious-looking military-style truck ignored demands and warning shots to stop, and Ulman gave the order to open fire on the truck until it halted. He said the soldiers discovered they had killed one of the six people aboard and wounded two others. He claimed that they were then ordered by superiors in radio messages to kill the survivors and make it look like the truck was carrying rebels and had blown up on a mine.