20.04.2007 | Halya Coynash

Convenient disappearances


Over the last week, both Russian and foreign media have been full of reports about the violent manner in which the “Marches of those in dissent” [“Marshy nyesoglasnykh”] were dispersed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The number of people detained and the reports that many were beaten by police and riot squads, not to mention the fact that peaceful marches were banned in the first place make such coverage vital.

Unfortunately, against the background of all of this one other event failed to receive the attention it warranted.  Last week three men failed to appear at a court hearing. The names may ring bells with some and they should with all of us.  The three men are Captain Edward Ulman and two of his former subordinates. 

Attempts to bring them to justice for the shooting in cold blood of six Chechen civilians have been continuing for many years now. On 11 January 2002 in Chechnya, military servicemen under the command of Captain Edward Ulman shot at a car carrying civilians, killing one of them, – the 65-year-old head of a village school. . They checked the papers of the five surviving passengers and a few hours later shot and killed them - a 35-year-old mother of five, and four other men.

The order to kill was issued by Ulman and carried out by his subordinates – Kalagansky and Voevodin.

Arguments have raged in Russia over this case ever since it came to light, with a worrying number of people justifying Ulman’s actions.  Their arguments, when they have them of course, are that the men had received the order to organize an ambush.  How were they to know that the person killed when they shot at that car was a civilian? 

There are a number of “problems” with such an argument but let’s stay with one: it fails to take into account the other five people killed hours after the ambush and after their papers had confirmed their civilian status. These innocent civilians were murdered because they could have testified to an original “inadvertent” crime.

Ulman claims he received an order from his superiors to carry out the killings. In fact, the nature of this “order” and even its very existence are in question. 60 years after the Nuremburg Trials, however, it seems obscenely inappropriate to argue about whether the men “were simply obeying orders” when they killed five people who by no stretch of the most diseased imagination could be called insurgents.

In August 2005 the Russian Supreme Court overturned a ruling by a military court finding Ulman and three military servicemen innocent of the killing of six civilians. 

The present court case was in fact their third.  The men had been acquitted twice by a military tribunal and by a jury who found their actions “adequate under the given circumstances and connected with carrying out their official duties”.

In fact there almost seemed grounds for some very cautious optimism in the fact that the acquittals were overturned.  In April 2006 the Russian Constitutional Court allowed the application from the victims’ relatives and the then President of Chechnya to have the case reviewed by professional judges.  

Following the conviction of Yury Budanov for the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen woman, this also seemed like a move away from extra-judicial killings and military impunity.

The prosecution was calling for sentences of 23 years for Ulman and Perelevsky, 19 years for Voevodin and 18 for Kalagansky.

Given the very large numbers of people who do not appear in court, it seems curious that men facing such lengthy periods of imprisonment should have been left at liberty on a mere undertaking not to abscond. 

It is even more, shall we say, difficult to fathom how the Russian enforcement officers, able most efficiently last weekend to detain people leaving a train on suspicion of planning (!) to take part in an illegally banned peaceful march, can have “absolutely no idea” where the three men may be.  The men have been placed on the federal wanted list. According to human rights defender Andrei Blinushov, a military expert suggested to him in the last few days that the men may have escaped to Serbia.  A fourth person, Perelevsky, did appear in court and the preventive measure against him, this being an undertaking not to abscond, has been retained.  It remains to be seen whether the enforcement officers will manage to divert their attention from peaceful protesters long enough to ensure his next appearance in court.

They could most profitably also try to establish the whereabouts of Yury Budanov who, only two thirds of the way through his sentence, would appear to have “disappeared” somewhere between penal colonies.

Given the assiduous attempts over many years to prevent Yury Budanov, Edward Ulman and his former subordinates from having to answer for their crimes, it would seem highly convenient for the authorities to “lose track” of these men.

Given the nature of their crimes, however, it is imperative that they are not allowed to quietly “disappear”.

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