TWENTY months after the hardline coup attempt in Moscow, directed at then president Mikhail Gorbachev, the trial of the 12 main figures behind it finally began yesterday and immediately the defendants challenged the validity of the court and the probity of the prosecutor, Valentin Stepankov. Some threatened to refuse to answer questions if Mr Stepankov was not removed. The first day's session came to an early end as one of the accused, the 67-year-old former industrialists' leader, Alexander Tizyakov, was taken ill and left the court bent double and coughing.
The 12 Communists, including the former Soviet prime minister Valentin Pavlov, former defence minister Dmitry Yazov and former KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, had started the day by meeting along with a knot of supporters outside the Ivushka cafe on New Arbat Street. From there these men, who once travelled everywhere by Zil limousine, walked to the Russian Supreme Court building opposite the Gnesin Music Institute. The chants of their 100 or so flag-waving supporters mixed with sounds of musicians rehearsing.
The proceedings were closed to all but a handful of Russian journalists and one Western 'pool' reporter. The only members of the public allowed in were relatives of the accused and families of the three young men who died during the coup attempt.
The morning was taken up with a defence argument, led by Abdullah Khamzayev, lawyer for the former Soviet vice-president Gennady Yanayev, that the Russian court had no right to judge the accused because the events of August 1991 concerned all the republics of the former Soviet Union. It was suggested that an inter-republican court be convened. Mr Khamzayev also objected to the military judge, Major-General Anatoly Ukolov and his two assistants, saying they could not objectively hear evidence from the current Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, because he is their superior. After lunch Judge Ukolov announced that he was throwing out these objections.
The defence then turned its guns on Mr Stepankov, head of the nine-man prosecution team. Mr Yanayev complained that Mr Stepankov had violated investigation ethics by speaking of the 'guilt' of the defendants in a recently published book called Kremlin Plot, when all material concerning the coup attempt was supposed to be sub judice.
The trial looks set to go on for weeks, if not months. Yesterday, after Mr Tizyakov stumbled from court, Mr Yanayev appealed for shorter daily sessions, saying that most of his fellow accused were old and sick and if the current pace were kept up, 'only Yazov and I will be left here'.
President Yeltsin yesterday said all Russia's 21 semi-autonomous ethnic republics would be taking part in the 25 April referendum on who rules the country. He also hinted that he might be about to try to force the resignation of Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi. 'He is categorically against reform,' Mr Yeltsin said.
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