Russians cleared of 'VIP' helicopter wildlife hunt
A Russian court on Monday acquitted senior officials of shooting rare species from a helicopter in a case backed by ecologists that prompted public anger at so-called "VIP hunting".
A court in the Altai republic found three passengers, including the region's former deputy premier, not guilty of illegal hunting, the RIA Novosti news agency reported, in a low-key end to a scandal dubbed "Altaigate" by media.
In January 2009, a helicopter crashed into a snowy mountainside in Altai, close to the Mongolian border, killing seven people, including a presidential envoy to the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Photographs leaked to a regional news agency and then widely distributed in the media showed the bodies of rare Argali sheep, scattered beside the debris, one of which had a knife sticking out of its body.
The crash highlighted the practice of senior officials enjoying the perk of costly hunting trips to remote locations, organised by local officials. One of the dead passengers was the regional official in charge of animal conservation.
Any hunting of the Argali sheep, which are listed in Russia's "red book" of endangered species is banned, as is shooting at animals directly from helicopters.
The case was taken up by organisations including WWF, which asked prosecutors to probe the incident, only for them to initially close the case, before reopening it.
Finally prosecutors charged three of the survivors with illegal hunting, saying they were shooting at the Argali sheep and had killed three of the animals.
However a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that the three men charged were involved in hunting, saying the case was based on conjecture. Prosecutors said they would appeal, RIA Novosti reported.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in an interview last week with US magazine "Outdoor Life" said that he was "categorically against uncontrolled mass shooting of animals."
Russia last year created a national park to protect the Argali and the snow leopard.
© 2011 AFP