The most prominent of 16 suspects charged in last year's slaying of seven people in a southern Russian province pleaded not guilty Wednesday before the republic's highest court, court officials said.
Ali Kaitov, the former son-in-law of Mustafa Batdyev, the president of the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, where seven businessmen disappeared in October and were later found dead, denied involvement in the murders.
Fourteen other defendants also pleaded not guilty but another defendant, Tamerlan Bostanov, admitted to one murder although he claimed he acted in self-defense, a spokesman for the court said.
The seven shareholders in a chemical company linked to Kaitov went missing after being summoned to a meeting at Kaitov's cottage, and prosecutors believe they were killed at the meeting.
The high profile case prompted angry protests against the local leadership during which demonstrators seized Batdyev's office and demanded he step down, accusing him of covering up the murders.
Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, in Russia's restive North Caucasus, has been plagued by frequent contract murders and other violence, some linked to rivalries between local criminal clans and some spilling over from war-torn separatist Chechnya to the east.
On the photo: Ali Kaitov
An explosion of household gas occurred in a nine-storeyed apartment building in the city of Shakhty, the Rostov region of Russia. The blast destroyed two storeys of the building