Soviet coup trial flops: Hardliners are jubilant over judge's dismissal of prosecution team, writes Helen Womack from Moscow

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RELATIVES of 12 former Soviet Communists on trial for attempting a coup broke into jubilant applause yesterday when the judge accepted the defence argument that the prosecution team had behaved unprofessionally and dismissed it.

'The court at least has shown it is objective,' said Valentin Pavlov, who was Soviet prime minister until he joined the bungled putsch against President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. The defence rested its case largely on the fact that the Russian Prosecutor-General, Valentin Stepankov, and his deputy, Yevgeny Lisov, violated the principles of sub judice and presumption of innocence until proof of guilt by publishing a book called Kremlin Plot, which described the defendants as 'criminals' before their trial had begun.

'The very title of the book shows that the Prosecutor-General has an opinion on the case and is not objective,' said Mr Pavlov's lawyer, Alexei Galaganov. 'It is a very crude infringement of the rights of the accused. It is unprecedented in world practice.'

The military judge, Anatoly Ukolov, agreed and dismissed the team appointed by Mr Stepankov. Parliament will now be asked to debate the violations and work out a way of guaranteeing a fair trial for the defendants, who include the former defence minister and the former KGB chief. They are charged with treason and could be sentenced to long prison terms or even death if convicted, although they have been released from custody for the time being.

Judge Ukolov's ruling represents a considerable victory for the members of the self-styled Emergency Committee, which held power for a mere three days, and for Russian conservatives in general. Hardliners in parliament, which was elected before the collapse of the Soviet Union, can be expected to use the judgment to attack President Boris Yeltsin and his democrats and it may be a long time before the trial resumes, if it ever does.

The trial opened in April and was almost immediately adjourned because one defendant, Alexander Tizyakov, was taken to hospital with heart problems. He was discharged last week and attended yesterday's hearing with his 11 co-accused.

Mr Stepankov's job could be in doubt after the legal fiasco over which he has presided. Three young Russians died in the coup attempt, when tanks were sent on to the streets of Moscow, and there is certainly a serious case for the 12 defendants to answer. But they say their trial will inevitably be political. Addressing the court last month, one of the accused, the former Soviet parliamentary chairman Anatoly Lukyanov, said the process amounted to 'the victorious worldview sitting in judgment over the losing worldview'.

(Photograph omitted)