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Russian Court Challenged as Trial Opens in Coup Plot


MOSCOW — The trial of 12 of the most powerful men of the Gorbachev era, who face charges of high treason for their roles in the August, 1991, coup, commenced Wednesday with the accused audaciously challenging the court with one legal maneuver after another.

Rather than acting like defendants on trial for a crime so grave that it carries a possible death penalty, the men appeared relaxed and confident, talking among themselves, almost as if they were back in the past, participating in a Communist Party meeting.

Outside, a group of fervent supporters cheered them on, waving red Soviet flags and holding posters with such slogans as "Freedom to the Patriots of the Motherland" and "(President Boris N.) Yeltsin, Beware the Trial and the Nation!"

The trial, which is being heard by a military tribunal of the Russian Supreme Court in an austerely decorated courtroom, is expected to last weeks or months. As many as 120 witnesses, including former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, are scheduled to take the stand. Security is tight and press coverage is limited to a handful of Russian reporters and one foreign correspondent.

The defendants--including the former vice president, prime minister, defense minister, KGB chief and top Communist Party and military officials of the Soviet Union--claim that their actions did not constitute a coup but a last-ditch effort to preserve their country, the Soviet Union, from certain collapse.

The defense's first tactic was to challenge the authority of the court itself. They claimed that Russia's Supreme Court is not the legal heir of the Supreme Court of the former Soviet Union, which disintegrated four months after the failure of the coup, and hence has no right to rule on a case of treason against the Soviet Union.

"The union no longer exists," argued Genrikh Pavda, an attorney for former Soviet Parliament leader Anatoly I. Lukyanov, 62. "It seems to me that we have today to decide who can judge an alleged crime against a state that may no longer exist."

Defense lawyers also charged that the judges should be dismissed because they could not be objective since as military men, they are subordinate to Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, who is a witness for the prosecution.

One after another, the defendants voiced their concurrence and demanded that their trial be heard by a special tribunal that represents other republics of the former Soviet Union, not just Russia.

But, after three hours of deliberations, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Ukolov, who is presiding over the non-jury trial with two other judges, rejected the defense's demands as legally groundless and stated that the court has authority over proceedings for crimes committed on Russian territory.

But the defense did not stop there.

Several of the defendants defiantly demanded that the prosecution team be dismissed because it is subordinate to Valentin G. Stepankov, Russia's chief prosecutor, and Yevgeny K. Lisov, the head investigator in the case, who co-authored a book on the conspiracy based on their investigation. The book shows that the prosecutor's office has a clear bias, the defendants charged.

Lukyanov rose, commanding the courtroom in the authoritative style that he was famous for as chairman of the Soviet Parliament, and declared that if the prosecutors remain on the case, "I will refuse to answer their questions!"

The judges announced a recess until today while they consider Lukyanov's challenge.

The trial is being held in a military court because several of the defendants are former generals, but at court, all of the accused were dressed in civilian clothing.

Former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov, 69, appeared wearing a pink shirt and cherry red tie. When army Gen. Valentin I. Varennikov, 69, was asked why he was not wearing his uniform and numerous medals, he replied in a righteous tone: "My weapon is the truth, and I don't want to influence the court with my medals."

Public anger toward the leaders of the coup has dissipated over the long months since Yeltsin clambered atop a tank outside the Russian Parliament building. In a recent survey of Muscovites, only 1% of those polled said they think the defendants should be given the death penalty and 34% said they should be pardoned.

With the economic situation steadily deteriorating, many Russians have begun to look back on the days of Communist rule--and on the leaders of the failed putsch--with increasing fondness.

"They're not criminals--they just wanted to stop the disintegration of our country that Gorbachev started," Vladimir Golubev, a retired factory worker who has seen his life savings vanish because of high inflation, said as he stood outside the courthouse.

Special correspondent Viktor A. Vodolazhsky contributed to this report.

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