Russian military court convicts four soldiers of murders of six civilians in Chechnya

A military court convicted four soldiers of the murders of six civilians in Chechnya, a verdict that followed two previous acquittals.

The case has been followed closely in war-scarred Chechnya, where many are outraged that no one has been brought to justice for the January 2002 killing of a driver and five passengers of a truck in Chechnya.

A three-judge panel at southern Russia's top military court sentenced Capt. Eduard Ulman in absentia to 14 years in prison and handed down sentences of nine, 11 and 12 years to three subordinates.

Two separate juries had acquitted the men, who claimed they were following orders, but the acquittals have been overturned by the Supreme Court, forcing new trials. In Russia, the Supreme Court can throw out acquittals on procedural grounds.

Ulman and two other defendants have been missing since they failed to show up for hearings in April, deepening the sense of injustice among relatives of the victims.

"We are satisfied with the guilty verdict, but of course we are dissatisfied that it cannot be implemented immediately," Murad Musayev, who represents the victims' relatives, said on NTV television.

Defense lawyers and the fourth defendant have said they do not know the whereabouts of the three.

The acquittals in previous trials prompted protest rallies in Chechnya and criticism from Chechen leaders of the region's Moscow-backed government.

Chechnya's ombudsman, Nurdi Mukhazhiyev, said the defendants deserved at least 20 years and possibly life in prison, Interfax reported. "The courts still have a biased attitude toward servicemen and Chechens," Whenever they try a resident of the Chechen Republic, they sentence him to 20-25 years or life, even if he confesses after torture," he was quoted as saying.

Prosecutors had requested sentences ranging from 18 to 23 years.

Another lawyer for relatives of the victims, Lyudmila Tikhomirova, expressed dissatisfaction with the sentences and said defendants convicted in multiple killings were usually sentenced to at least 15 years.

A nationalist Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, suggested the verdict was politically motivated predetermined by the Russian government's desire to please the allies it relies on to rule Chechnya, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. Dmitry Rogozin also said it was "absolutely possible" the defendants were abducted or killed.

Victims relatives have said they believe Ulman and the other two have gone into hiding to avoid the trial, and that their absence was an admission of guilt.

Human rights groups claim Russian soldiers and Chechen security forces frequently act with brutal impunity, including killing, abducting and intimidating civilians in Chechnya.

Russia has seen only one other high-profile trial of servicemen accused of killing civilians in the two separatist wars that have wracked Chechnya since 1994.

"The judgment ... is important and will resonate with the people in Chechnya. Nevertheless, there are many other wartime crimes in Chechnya in which those responsible have yet to be brought to justice," Interfax quoted Oleg Orlov, head of the human rights group Memorial, as saying.

During the first trial, defense lawyer Alexei Ulyanov said the killings occurred when the driver of a suspicious-looking military-style truck ignored demands and warning shots to stop, and Ulman gave the order to open fire on the truck until it halted.

He said the soldiers discovered they had killed one of the six people in the truck and wounded two others. He claimed they were then ordered by superiors in radio messages to kill the survivors and make it look like the truck was carrying rebels and had blown up on a mine.