Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen Commander in War Crimes Trial

Moscow forestalls criticisms of prejudice by staging a landmark trial in the North Caucasus
By Yuri Akbashev

A Chechen field commander could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering four Russian prisoners-of-war whose brutal execution in 1996 was filmed on video-tape.


Salautdin Temirbulatov, 39, who also faces charges of kidnapping and terrorism, is the first rebel leader to face trial for war crimes since Moscow invaded the republic in 1994.


High security surrounded the hearings at Nalchik's Supreme Court last week with adjoining streets sealed off by heavily armed units of OMON special police.


The prosecutor, Vladimir Kravchenko, told the court that, during the first Chechen war, Temirbulatov commanded a unit of 200 fighters under the notorious warlord, Ruslan Gelaev.


After the fall of Grozny in 1995, the former tractor driver (who is also known by the monicker Traktorist) joined the so-called Shatoi regiment which was based in the southern mountains and took no part in subsequent military operations.


"He wore three large stars on his epaulettes and called himself a Colonel in the Army of Ichkeria," said Kravchenko. "He had a personal bodyguard of no less than 20 men."


According to the prosecution, on April 12, 1996, Temirbulatov captured four Russian contract soldiers near the settlement of Komsomolskoe. He then lined the men up in front of a video camera and read out their death sentence in Chechen.


Temirbulatov shot three of the soldiers in the back of the head with a handgun, before taking out a knife and cutting the fourth prisoner's throat, Kravchenko told the court.


The tape later fell into the hands of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and, in the same year, a warrant was issued for Temirbulatov's arrest on charges of murder and terrorism.


When Russia invaded Chechnya for a second time in September 1999, the video-tape became a powerful weapon in the Kremlin's propaganda war. It was shown to human rights organisations across Europe as well as to soldiers preparing for active service in the war-torn republic.


Temirbulatov was arrested in March 2000 in the village of Duba Yurt where he was caught forcing local residents to provide food and shelter to wounded rebel fighters.


According to the prosecutor's office, he subsequently confessed to the 1996 execution and showed Russian investigators where the soldiers' bodies had been buried.


However, during last week's court hearing, he admitted to shooting only one of the prisoners and vehemently denied slitting the fourth man's throat.


The rebel commander also denied kidnapping a Turkish businessman and demanding $2 million for his release. The man was freed after relatives paid $250,000 to his kidnappers and has been summoned as a key prosecution witness.


Temirbulatov has pleaded not guilty to charges of abducting Russian servicemen in the years between the two Chechen campaigns.


One witness, Russian army major Anatoly Mogutnov, claimed he was taken prisoner by the Traktorist in 1997.


"In 1997, our special unit was caught up in a vicious skirmish in Chechnya," Mogutnov told the court. "The lads called up the base and requested a helicopter evacuation. We flew out and loaded the wounded soldiers on board.


"Then we came under heavy small-arms fire and the helicopter was forced to fly off. Together with two other officers, I missed getting back into the chopper by seconds. We were surrounded by Chechens and forced to surrender. It was Temirbulatov who took us prisoner.


"They said they wanted to exchange us for some Chechens who were in a federal prison camp. They treated us well. We weren't beaten or tortured at any point."


The decision to try Temirbulatov in the North Caucasus rather than in Moscow shows a new sensitivity on the part of the Russian government. The judge Mukhamed Almezov is a Balkar, a member of an ethnic group which was deported to Central Asia with the Chechens in 1944.


However Almezov told IWPR that the court would remain impartial, despite the political overtones of the case. He added that there had been no pressure from Moscow in the run-up to the trial.


If found guilty, Temirbulatov could face the death penalty - despite a moratorium on capital punishment declared when Russia was accepted into the Council of Europe. However, legal experts claim that public opinion and the seriousness of the charges could persuade the Kremlin to make an exception in Temirbulatov's case.


Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor