Prague, 20 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Few will be surprised by the verdict of Russia's North Caucasus District military court. Human rights abuses by the Russian armed forces in Chechnya are well-documented, but legal action against the military is rarely taken -- and even more rarely successful.
The ruling deals a heavy blow to the hopes of human rights activists that the armed forces might be becoming more accountable.
"A decision like this by the jury can only mean one thing: that on the orders of their superiors, our special forces, our elite units, and our policemen can kill freely, can knowingly kill innocent, peaceful citizens," Oleg Orlov of the Moscow human rights organization Memorial said. "In my opinion, this is a terrible decision that has set a terrible precedent."
Nobody disputes the circumstances of the case. In January 2002, Captain Eduard Ulman and his unit of elite troops were on an intelligence-gathering mission in the mountainous district of Shatoi in southern Chechnya. When a minivan failed to stop at their checkpoint they opened fire, killing one man instantly and wounding two. Three others, including a pregnant woman, were unhurt.
Ulman radioed his headquarters to inform them of the incident and seek instructions. Acting on the orders received, the Russian soldiers shot the survivors, loaded their bodies into the minivan, and set it alight.
The district military court cleared the soldiers of murder and of trying to cover up the evidence by burning the bodies. The jury, which relatives of the dead say did not include anyone from the Caucasus, concluded that they had acted in accordance with their military duties and the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Memorial's Orlov says the court's decision shows that the Chechen people have been abandoned by the state.
Speaking to the Interfax agency, Captain Ulman said he welcomed the verdict and that all the men involved continued to serve in the Russian armed forces.
It was not the first time that this particular case had been brought to court. Last year, another jury, this time in the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, also found the men not guilty. But the military branch of Russia's Supreme Court challenged the decision, forcing the retrial. The Russian military will now hope that the affair can quickly be forgotten.
That seems unlikely, however. The case has stirred up widespread popular resentment and a lawyer for the relatives of the victims says they will appeal against the verdict. Today, an angry crowd gathered in Grozny to protest the decision. Perhaps even more alarming for the Russian authorities, the case has outraged even their supporters in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. Taus Djabrailov, chairman of the Governing Counsel of Chechnya, is demanding justice.
"They killed absolutely innocent people. They were on their way home after work. Not only did they murder them, they even tried to burn their bodies. It's an horrific crime! And I think they will yet have to answer for their actions, given the seriousness of what they have done. That's the view of both the leadership and the people of Chechnya. I hope they will be punished for killing innocent people," Djabrailov said.
The ordinary people of Chechnya are unlikely to be impressed, though, by Djabrailov's expressions of concern. The armed units of his own pro-Moscow administration operate with no less impunity than the Russian military. Memorial's Orlov says the court's decision shows that the Chechen people have been abandoned by the state.
"It's obvious the civilian population feels totally unprotected," Orlov said. "But it did anyway. In truth, this verdict has merely confirmed what Chechens already knew: that the Russian state does not defend the rights of the civilian population of the Chechen Republic."
Winning hearts and minds in Chechnya does not appear to figure high on the list of priorities of the Russian military. President Vladimir Putin talks of the need for massive investment in the local economy, of the gradual normalization of Chechen life, and the need for strengthening local self-government. All very desirable, no doubt, but this trial has again exposed the reality of Chechen life and it is starkly at odds with Putin's vision.