Russian soldiers cleared of Chechen murders

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The Independent Online

Efforts to bring the Russian army to book for its atrocities in Chechnya have suffered their biggest setback yet after a court cleared four special forces soldiers of murdering six civilians in cold blood despite the men's own confessions.

Efforts to bring the Russian army to book for its atrocities in Chechnya have suffered their biggest setback yet after a court cleared four special forces soldiers of murdering six civilians in cold blood despite the men's own confessions.

The "Ulman case" is one of a handful that has made it to the Russian courts in the past decade and its harrowing nature has made it a cause célèbre for human rights groups.

But a Russian jury in the city of Rostov-on-Don has shocked Chechens, human rights activists, the Moscow-backed Chechen administration and Russia's legal profession by acquitting all of the accused.

The four men - Captain Eduard Ulman, Ensign Vladimir Voevodin, Lieutenant Alexander Kalagansky and Major Aleksei Perelevsky - were all accused of murder. The events, which took place in Chechnya on 11 January 2002, were not disputed by the accused.

Captain Ulman and his team, all members of Russia's "Spetsnaz" - special forces - were parachuted into a remote area thought to contain Chechen rebels. They were authorised to use "targeted force" and did so when a Jeep carrying six people refused to pull over.

The captain and his men sprayed the Jeep with machine- gun fire, killing one of its occupants and wounding two others. When the dust had settled, however, the Russian troops realised the vehicle's occupants were civilians, including at least one female invalid. The troops bandaged the Chechens' wounds and radioed their superiors for instructions. Three hours later an order came from Major Perelevskyto "liquidate" the survivors.

The Chechens were executed and their vehicle doused with petrol and set on fire to make it look as if it had been blown up by a mine. But there had been witnesses to the events, and the four men were brought to trail on murder charges.

However, the Rostov court ruled that the men were following orders and that, although the orders might have been criminal, it was not clear who ultimately gave them.

Ludmila Tikhomorova, a lawyer for the victims' relatives, said it was an outrage. "[The message is that] it's possible to kill anyone in Chechnya without reprisal. It's practically a licence to kill civilians." Unusually, Russia's military prosecutor agreed: he has said he will appeal against the jury's decision.

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