Russia puts Ukrainians on trial for Chechnya killings

A Chechen fighter runs for cover as another hides behind a destroyed Russian tank during fighting in Grozny, Russia, January 8, 1994 (AFP Photo/Oleg Nikishin)

Moscow (AFP) - Two Ukrainians went on trial in Russia on Tuesday accused of murdering dozens of Russian soldiers in Chechnya in the 1990s while fighting with separatists in a nationalist hit squad.

The powerful Investigative Committee said that the supreme court of Chechnya in Grozny began hearing the case of Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk, both of whom are charged with murder and belonging to a militant organisation.

The men have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year after being arrested separately when they came to Russia last year.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said they were members of a Ukrainian nationalist group called UNA-UNSO that aimed "to oppose the Russian government in any form and eliminate Russian citizens of Russian ethnicity."

The Investigative Committee said the pair came to Chechnya with several other Ukrainians to "attack and kill citizens, Russian soldiers and security officers".

Markin said they clashed with Russian troops in Grozny from December 1994 to January 1995, "killing at least 30 soldiers."

Karpyuk is a well-known nationalist in Ukraine, while Klykh is a journalist who lectured on history at a Kiev university. Their supporters said neither has ever been to Chechnya.

Their defence calls their prosecution politically motivated.

The case reportedly rests on the testimony of a Ukrainian already serving a long sentence for armed robbery who agreed to cooperate with investigators and will be tried separately on the same charges.

Klykh's lawyer Marina Dubrovina has said her client was subjected to torture including electric shock and starvation.

She said he was pressured to testify against far-right Ukrainian organisations vilified by Moscow.

The case is part of a sweeping probe into the participation of Ukrainians in Chechen hit squads led by a far-right Ukrainian nationalist, Oleksandr Muzytchko -- also known as Sashko Bilyi.

Muzytchko later became the coordinator of Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group in western Ukraine. He was shot dead by Ukrainian police last year.

Right Sector, which has been banned in Russia, played a key role in the deadly protests that unseated pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych last year and its well-equipped fighters have also fought pro-Russian separatists in the east.

Last week the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin made widely ridiculed allegations that Ukraine's bespectacled Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also fought in Chechnya, though Tuesday's statement makes no mention of him.

Russia fought two messy wars in Chechnya against separatists calling for an independent state. The military campaign ended with the installation of Ramzan Kadyrov, a former separatist warlord, at the helm of the war-torn region.