MOSCOW -- In the end, not one of the men who plotted to rTC overthrow Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the 1991 failed coup will be punished: Gen. Valentin I. Varennikov, the last of 12 defendants, was acquitted of treason yesterday by the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court.
That brought to a close a three-year trial of the coup leaders.
The other leaders of the hard-line coup, whose collapse brought on the breakup of the Soviet Union, have either died, seen the cases against them dismissed because of poor health, or been pardoned under a general political amnesty declared by Parliament in February.
General Varennikov, formerly deputy defense minister, rejected the amnesty and demanded a trial, at which he argued that it was Mr. Gorbachev who should be tried for treason for allowing )) the Soviet Union to disintegrate.
The 70-year-old general said his only regret was that the coup, which horrified the world, had failed.
Yesterday's verdict was greeted by cries of "Thank you!" from about 150 spectators who had come to the courtroom each day to cheer General Varennikov -- and to heckle Mr. Gorbachev, who put in an appearance last month to denounce the general's testimony as "arrogant lies."
General Varennikov, the former commander of Soviet ground forces, declared his acquittal to be "proof of Mikhail Gorbachev's guilt" and said he would now set about promoting "the revival of our fatherland."
General Varennikov has asked the Russian prosecutor general to press treason charges against Mr. Gorbachev and called on Parliament to hold an inquiry into the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In exonerating General Varennikov, the court noted that he was not a member of the State Emergency Committee but acted on the orders of his boss, then-Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov. Hence, the court said, General Varennikov was only following orders.
Further, the court found no evidence that General Varennikov knew his orders were illegal, saying that he had no way of knowing his superiors had placed Mr. Gorbachev under house arrest.
The court ruled that General Varennikov's decision to support the coup did not constitute a betrayal of his country, the Soviet Union.
In a 45-minute reading of the verdict, the court declared General Varennikov's "goals and interests were not mercenary ones. . . . He was interested only in preserving and strengthening his country."
A spokesman for Mr. Gorbachev denounced the ruling, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for Russia.
"Now anyone who tries to organize a coup, fails and is put on trial can say, 'I was following orders,' and get away with it," said Vladimir A. Polyakov of the Gorbachev Foundation.