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

Chechnya: Russian Convicted of Abuses

Ground-breaking prosecution of Russian soldier may herald further similar trials.
By Kazbek Tsurayev

A court in Grozny has found a senior Russian military serviceman guilty of beating and torturing a Chechen civilian, in the first such trial to be staged in Chechnya.


Senior Lieutenant Sergey Lapin, a member of the Russian special services, was sentenced on March 29 to 11 years in a high security prison for his attack on 22-year-old Zelimkhan Murdalov four years ago.


Human rights campaigners have welcomed the conviction, believing it could herald further prosecutions of Russian servicemen accused of violations in the republic.


Murdalov, who is still missing, was delivered to military headquarters in Grozny’s Oktyabrski district on January 2, 2001, having been arrested for allegedly possessing marijuana. The detainee was interrogated by Lapin, an officer from the criminal investigation department, whose nom de guerre, “Cadet”, was shaved onto the back of his head.


It is believed that Lapin beat Murdalov until he was almost unconscious. Sharpudi Israilov, one of Murdalov’s cellmates, told the court, "Murdalov was brought in on the evening of January 2. We asked what had happened to him. He managed to say that two truncheons had been broken while he was being beaten. His ear was hanging down, his head was swollen and bloodstained, and one of his hands was swollen. There was an abrasion between his shoulder blades, as if they had been pressed with something. He could not stand unassisted."


Another witness, Suvaldi Katsiyev, testified in court, "Murdalov told me how Lapin had tortured him. An electric current was connected to his body via a phone set. He was kicked and beaten with truncheons. I talked to him until he fell into a coma."


The next day, Murdalov was removed from the cell on Lapin’s orders. "Murdalov could not walk by himself. Police on duty led him out of the cell, holding him under his arms, and handed him over to the operational officer," Israilov said.


According to witnesses, Murdalov was then driven away by Lapin to an unknown location.


"When Murdalov was being led out, he had a copper bracelet on his hand. Later, I found it on the floor of an army jeep when I was being taken [for questioning]. When the driver noticed [that I had found it], he took the bracelet away," Israilov told the court.


Murdalov has not been heard of since then.


The conflict in Chechnya, which began more than ten years ago, was officially recognised to have finished in 2002. However, there continue to be unexplained deaths and disappearances throughout the republic. According to the Memorial human rights centre, between 3,000 and 5,000 people have been arrested or abducted in Chechnya since war broke out.


Murdalov’s father, Astemir, was the first to begin the search for his son. His legal action against Lapin has been supported by human rights activists. Lapin, who was in his native Nizhnevartovsk at the time of his arrest, was identified on the basis of the “Cadet” inscription on the back of his head.


The first court hearing was in Autumn 2003, and there have been seven more since. Lapin repeatedly failed to attend court sessions, leading to speculation that he was deliberately lengthening the trial.


At one hearing, the defendant went back on an initial statement he had given in Nizhnevartovsk, in which he said that he had driven Murdalov away from the Oktyabrski police station. But several witnesses from Murdalov’s cell identified Lapin as the officer who took the victim from the police station.


On March 24, the Oktyabrski district court found Lapin guilty of three charges: abuse of power, inflicting grievous bodily injuries, and forgery.


The convict's lawyer, Grigory Degtyarev, is launching an appeal to the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic. He believes that client could appeal for remission.


Natalya Estemirova, representative of Memorial, said that Lapin's trial set an important precedent as the first trial in Chechnya of a Russian soldier suspected of abuses, and could mark the start of a whole series of similar cases. "This trial is unique,” she said.


According to Estemirova, several policemen from Khanty-Mansi Okrug are also suspected of having committed serious crimes in the Chechen republic. In July 2003, Yuri Budanov, a colonel in the Russian army, received a 10-year sentence in Russia for murdering an 18-year-old Chechen girl. So far, he is the highest-ranking official to be convicted of abuses against civilians in Chechnya.


Meanwhile, Murdalov's father Astemir says he not satisfied with the sentence handed down to Lapin, who has still not disclosed what happened to Murdalov after he was taken from the police station. "I will not be satisfied until my son is found. Even if Lapin was sentenced to 100 years in prison, this would not change anything for me," Astemir Murdalov said. "I started searching for my son in January 2001 but four years have passed and neither the investigation nor the court have given me any help with my search."


Kazbeg Tsurayev is a correspondent for the Chechenskoye Obshchestvo newspaper.