A military court in southern Russia Thursday convicted four soldiers, three in absentia, for the murder of six Chechen civilians in 2002.  The conviction comes after two civilian juries had found the men innocent.  The case has been followed closely in Chechnya and by human rights activists in Russia and abroad.  VOA's Moscow correspondent has this report.

Lieutenant Alexei Perelevsky shook his head as a three-judge military panel in the city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced him to nine years in jail for the murder of six Chechen civilians, including a pregnant woman, in 2002.  Perelevsky was the only defendant present at the retrial.  The others disappeared in April.  Perelevsky's commander, Captain Eduard Ulman, was given a 14-year sentence in absentia.  One of the lieutenant's colleagues received 12 years and the other 11. 

The prosecutor, Nikolai Tetov, had asked for more, but told journalists he was satisfied.

Tetov says he does not see the verdict as a great tragedy.  He adds that it is the prerogative of the court to assess actions by the defendants and to apply appropriate sanctions within legal guidelines.  

Speaking on Russian television (NTV), an attorney for relatives of the victims, Murad Musayev, said the families are also satisfied with the sentences, but regret they cannot be carried out immediately for all of the defendants.  Officials in Chechnya say the punishments are too lenient.

Earlier, two civilian juries had acquitted the soldiers.  In London, Victoria Webb, who follows human rights issues in the Russian Federation for Amnesty International, told the VOA that the juries had accepted the defense argument of soldiers merely following orders.

"But, today's verdict is a very welcome acknowledgement of the fact that defense of following orders is not a defense in Russian domestic legislation, nor under international law, and nor can it ever be," Webb said.

Earlier acquittals of the four soldiers had sparked outrage in the Caucasus, deepening a sense that Russian troops in Chechnya act with impunity.  Victoria Webb says Thursday's verdict is important, because it shows that serious war crimes in Chechnya can be successfully prosecuted in Russian courts.  She notes, however, that many other crimes against humanity in region have gone unpunished.