Trial opens for 12 who tried to oust Gorbachev in '91

April 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Twelve leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt finally went on trial yesterday, accused of betraying a motherland that no longer exists.

While a clutch of die-hard communists cheered behind police barricades outside, the defense unleashed an anticipated barrage of motions seeking to disqualify the military judges, the prosecutors and the court itself. And when the chief judge dismissed these, one of the defendants promptly fell ill.

One of the lawyers declared that the entire trial was political. In August 1991, said Abdulla Khamzayev, "There was a confrontation on one-sixth of the earth's surface between world views. This is a case in which the winning world view is judging the losing world view."

The maneuvers confirmed what legal experts had predicted, that the trial would be long, messy and steeped in the contradictions and conflicts that have evolved in the 20 months since the unsuccessful coup.

The defendants, who arrived one by one to the court building on Vorovsky Street, were far from the powerful Soviet leaders they once were -- chiefs of the KGB, the military, the Council of Ministers and the Soviet legislature, as well as the vice president.

But as they walked jauntily in well-tailored gray suits and waved cheerily to supporters, they were also not the despised and humbled enemies unceremoniously rounded up and displayed in grainy video images in the days after the failed coup.

Access to the small courtroom was severely restricted, but the proceedings were followed closely through radio and television. Because several of the defendants had military rank, the case was assigned to military judges, but was being tried under civil law.

All 12 defendants were charged with "treason against the motherland," a charge that could carry the death penalty, and five were additionally charged with exceeding their legal authority.

Even if there were no serious delays, the 120 witnesses summoned to testify -- including Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, but not Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin -- ensured that the trial would last many weeks.

Mr. Yeltsin declined to comment on the trial. But he expressed concern that the case would interfere with the referendum on Russia's future set for April 25.

"Let the court make decisions," Mr. Yeltsin said. "The only thing that worries me is that the trial coincides with active preparations for the referendum."

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