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7 Convicted in Deadly Perm OMON Attack

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan — Dagestan's Supreme Court on Monday convicted seven men in an attack on a Perm OMON column in Chechnya last year that left 43 servicemen dead.

Judge Butta Uvaisov said the court based its ruling primarily on testimony given by two of the defendants before the trial began in May. Both men withdrew their statements at the start of the trial, saying they had made them under threat of torture, but the judge said there was no evidence they had been abused by FSB investigators and let their statements stand.

The longest prison sentence, 21 years, went to Magdi Magomedov, 35, even though the judge said the evidence indicated he did not personally take part in the attack on the OMON column March 29, 2000.

Three other defendants — Ata Mirzayev, 31, Khairula Kuzaaliev, 27, and Gadzhi Batyrov, 22 — were sentenced to 19, 16 and 14 years, respectively.

All four men come from the Dagestani village of Karamakhi, which declared itself independent Islamic territory in the late 1990s and was destroyed when federal troops moved in to squash the rebellion in September 1999. The defendants are followers of Wahhabism, a strict version of Islam.

"My only guilt is that I come from a village with a specific Islamic tradition," Kuzaaliev said in his final statement a week ago.

Click here to read our special report on the Conflict in Chechnya.

The four men were convicted on charges of participating in illegal armed formations and illegally carrying weapons. A fifth defendant, Imamshamil Atayev, 26, also was convicted but was found to be mentally ill and committed to a closed psychiatric hospital. He attended the trial only on the first day.

The two men whose information formed the basis of the case — Eduard Valiakhmetov, 18, from Tatarstan and Shamil Kitov, 31, from Karachayevo-Cherkessia — were given small sentences and then amnestied. They were freed Monday right in the court room.

Throughout the monthlong trial, while five of the defendants were held in the courtroom in a steel cage, Kitov was held in the opposite corner of the room, handcuffed to a policeman. Unlike the others, he often smiled.

"The court found itself between a hammer and an anvil," Nikolai Sulin, Valiakhmetov's attorney, told journalists last week. "On the one hand, it must follow the letter of law, and on the other the court is under public pressure to punish the defendants."

Journalists, the defendants' relatives and a delegation of Perm OMON officers crowded into the small, stuffy courtroom for the reading of the sentences.

In reading the sentences for two hours, the judge said the verdicts were based on the testimony of Kitov, Valiakhmetov and other witnesses, including rebels jailed in Pyatigorsk and Tatarstan, who identified the defendants as members of illegal armed formations. Investigators also substantiated parts of the testimony through their own field work.

On March 29, 2000, the Perm OMON column of 48 men left Vedeno for Tsenteroi in two armored personnel carriers and two trucks. When one of the trucks broke down and the column came to a halt, a group of rebels commanded by Abu-Quteiba attacked, killing 32 servicemen and taking 11 hostage.

The hostages were killed within the next two days, investigators said, even though the rebels offered to exchange them for Colonel Yury Budanov, who is accused of killing a young Chechen woman. The offer was declined.

The judge acknowledged that investigators had no evidence that any of the defendants had participated in the attack. On the day of the attack, Kitov and Valiakhmetov had stayed in the village of Dzhani-Vedeno, as had Magomedov, while the others took part in an ambush one kilometer away from where the OMON column stalled, the judge said.

Four surviving OMON officers who appeared at the trial said they recognized Mirzayev as the one who drove away one of the APCs and then burned it down.

Mirzayev denied this charge, telling the court that it was impossible to see a driver sitting inside. The court appealed to an expert — a Dagestani OMON officer who did his military service as an APC driver — who said the driver's seat has two positions and when it is in the upper one the driver's head is visible from outside. The investigators' report showed that the APC driver's seat was in the upper position, and the court considered this definitive evidence.

The four Dagestani defendants also were accused of resisting federal forces when they moved into Dagestan in 1999. Batyrov, however, said he had been in Medina in Saudi Arabia studying Islam at the time and produced his passport backing up his claim. A considerable number of the charges against him were dropped.

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