ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In a war of horrors, it was one of the worst chapters. On the morning of Feb. 5, 2000, more than 100 Russian contract soldiers and riot police entered the village of Novye Aldi in Chechnya, sweeping from house to house in a futile search for separatist rebels.
What followed was what human rights investigators would later describe as "an orgy of killing, arson and rape."
More than 55 civilians, ranging in age from 1 to 82, were shot, strangled or burned in their homes. Gold teeth were pulled out of the victims' mouths; televisions, tape recorders and cash were looted; women were gang-raped and slain or left for dead. Yet in more than five years, no soldier was arrested or charged -- until recently.
Not until Sergei Babin became one of Russia's more implausible fugitives.
The 34-year-old former officer with the elite riot police force known as the OMON stands accused of the summary execution of an elderly man during the Novye Aldi mop-up operation. He is also charged with stealing 350 rubles, or about $12, and a pair of jewel-studded earrings from the man's neighbor.
If he is ever found by authorities, Babin's arrest and prosecution might mark the first concrete step to atone for one of the worst atrocities of the Chechen war. Yet in a sign of how profoundly troubled the Russian public has become over the long-running conflict, Babin has emerged as a cause celebre for the antiwar movement here in St. Petersburg, a symbol of what can go wrong when the nation sends its sons to fight an unpopular war.
On May 30, several dozen protesters from the city's liberal, leftist and pro-democracy organizations, including the ultra-leftist National Bolshevik Party, the liberal Yabloko youth movement and the pro-democracy organization Our Choice, rallied outside the St. Petersburg branch headquarters of the OMON. The picketers demanded that Babin be tried in St. Petersburg rather than Chechnya, and called him a victim of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's failed policy in the northern Caucasus separatist republic.
"Babin is a Hostage of Putin," said some of the signs. "Stop the War in Chechnya!" said others.
How did young liberal activists come to be marching in the streets on behalf of a riot policeman accused of war crimes?
Despite more than a decade of on-and-off fighting in Chechnya and a guerrilla insurgency that continues to claim the lives of a dozen or more Russian servicemen a month, this nation has experienced no substantial antiwar movement. Facing frequent acts of Chechen-organized terrorism, most Russians have been either silent or quietly supportive of the government's attempts to suppress the separatists and shore up the Moscow- friendly Chechen government in the republic's capital, Grozny.
Yet Moscow's inability to end the hostilities and the continued need to send Russian troops and police officers into the hazardous republic has quietly inspired growing antagonism toward the war. A poll in May by the respected Yuri Levada center shows that 77% of the public worries that Putin will not be able to end the war, and 62% favor peace negotiations with Chechen rebels, a policy Putin has steadfastly refused to adopt.
The incident in Novye Aldi, outside Grozny, is one of the most thoroughly investigated of the Chechen war, and Moscow has been under intense pressure from human rights advocates at home and elsewhere in Europe to bring the perpetrators to justice.
But here in St. Petersburg, Babin supporters say they believe the assertion of the former riot policeman and his superior officers that he was in a village about 60 miles from Novye Aldi on the day of the operation. They also support the former officer's decision to go into hiding, based on his fears that he would be slain if he were transferred to a Chechen prison.
"I was a police officer. And now I am a fugitive. Now I know what it's like on both sides," Babin said in an interview last month, arranged at a location that was not disclosed in advance.
"The situation now is that nobody wants to go to Chechnya anymore. Our record number of soldiers [in the OMON's St. Petersburg unit] is 1,200 officers, but St. Petersburg is short of 500 personnel now. There's a huge leak of people, mostly because they are refusing to go to Chechnya....The situation is very troubled, and I don't know what's going to happen," he said.
Babin was part of an engineering squad sent to dismantle explosives and had served seven tours of duty in Chechnya.
On that day in 2000, as Russian forces were in the midst of a long-running battle for Grozny and the surrounding countryside, Babin says, he was working at a checkpoint in the village of Betti-Mokhk.
He returned to St. Petersburg later in the year and took early retirement from the OMON in 2003, only to be arrested last December, based on the statement of a Novye Aldi resident who said she recognized Babin's face from a photograph.