Sixteen on trial in southern Russia, accused of involvement in seven murders

Sixteen people went on trial in a southern Russian province on Friday, accused of involvement in the October slaying of seven businessmen, in a high-profile case that prompted weeks of furious protests against the region's leader, Russian news agencies reported.

The defendants tried by the Supreme Court of the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya include Ali Kaitov, former son-in-law of the republic's president Mustafa Badtyev, as well as several law enforcement officials accused of helping the killers.

Seven shareholders in a chemical company linked to Kaitov disappeared on Oct. 10 when they were summoned to a meeting at Kaitov's cottage. Their charred remains were later discovered in a common grave and prosecutors believe they were killed at the meeting.

In the course of the preliminary hearings Friday, the defense was to ask the court to free the suspects from custody on bail or on a pledge not leave the country, the Interfax news agency reported, citing an unnamed attorney. Fifteen of the sixteen suspects are being held in jail.

The lawyers were also ask to have their clients tried by a jury. The hearings will be closed to the public.

The deaths of the seven businessmen sparked mass protests in this restive southern province, culminating in the seizure of Batdyev's office. Batdyev had his daughter divorce Kaitov, but angry protesters nevertheless demanded he step down, accusing him of covering up the murder.

The crisis was diffused only after Russian President Vladimir Putin had his envoy to the southern region, Dmitry Kozak, step in and promise a thorough investigation.

The Karachayevo-Cherkessiya region has been plagued by frequent contract murders and other violence, some linked to rivalries between local criminal clans and some spilling over from warring Chechnya to the east.

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