MOSCOW (AP)- A Russian court ruled against Josef Stalin's grandson Tuesday in a libel suit over a newspaper article that said the Soviet dictator sent thousands of people to their deaths.
A judge at a Moscow district court rejected Yevgeny Dzhugashvili's claim that Novaya Gazeta damaged Stalin's honor and dignity in an April article that referred to him as a "bloodthirsty cannibal."
The case essentially put Stalin on trial more than 50 years after his death. A ruling against the newspaper would have been seen as an exoneration one of the 20th century's most notorious autocrats.
And it would have dealt a blow to beleaguered Russian liberals who accuse the Kremlin of whitewashing history.
The late-evening ruling was a rare victory for Stalin's critics in their fight against efforts to rehabilitate the dictator, who according to the rights group Memorial ordered the deaths of at least 724,000 people during a series of purges that peaked in the late 1930s. But defendants said that having the case even make it to court was evidence of a chilling tendency to question the dark side of Soviet history.
"Behind the plaintiff's bench are those who are throttling freedom ... and giving the country back to Stalin," defense lawyer Genri Reznik told the court during hours of tense proceedings Tuesday. Only a few journalists were allowed into the Basmanny district courtroom.
On the winning side, the mood was more of relief than celebration.
"What should have happened, happened," Anatoly Yablokov, the author of the article and the newspaper's co-defendant, said. "It's a decision based on the law."
Stalin's grandson, who did not attend the trial, had demanded a retraction, a public apology and monetary damages. He has five days to appeal.
"We are sure the judge decided this case in advance," plaintiff's lawyer Vadim Zhur said. He suggested there might be an appeal, accusing the judge of violating his client's rights in decisions on evidence and witnesses.
Central to Dzhugashvili's case was a claim that a document incriminating the Soviet Union and Stalin himself for the 1940 massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and priests at the Katyn forest in western Russia was a fake. After blaming the Nazis for decades, the Soviet Union acknowledged in 1990 that Stalin's secret police carried out the killings.
Dzhugashvili also questioned the existence of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact that preceded World War II.
During the proceedings Tuesday, Zhur said Stalin's reputation has been wrongly besmirched.
"A lot of evidence is emerging that Stalin was our country's first democrat," he said.
Dzhugashvili's lead lawyer, Yuri Mukhin, charged that Novaya Gazeta and Memorial, a prominent rights group that documents Soviet-era abuses, "are working against Russia to make it weaker."
He claimed the Katyn document was falsified so Poland could demand compensation and "rob Russia."
Mukhin said the judge was wrong to allow Russian school textbooks as evidence of Stalin's repression.
"How can a textbook prove that Stalin was a tyrant?" Mukhin said during the hearing.
Reznik scoffed at Dzhugashvili's case.
"We don't believe we have to prove generally accepted facts," he said.
Ten elderly Stalin supporters gathered outside the courtroom Tuesday holding photographs of the dictator.
"I've come here to defend Stalin, to defend him against these terrible accusations," 77-year-old Vera Atomanova said. "He was a great man. He united the country and created a great superpower."
She and the others were reading the hardline communist newspaper Molniya, whose main headline was: "The myth of Stalinist repressions."
Stalin is revered by many in Russia who say he led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and turned a struggling nation into a superpower. Kremlin critics say Russia's leaders in the last decade have encouraged a more positive view of Stalin than their predecessors to justify their own retreat from democracy.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have mostly avoided open praise or criticism of Stalin, but have bristled at any effort to equate him with Hitler. Both have pressed for broader acceptance of the Kremlin' s portrayal of the Soviet role in 20th Century history and lashed out at those who question it.
Earlier this year, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian of all time in a television poll. Prominent lettering praising Stalin, which vanished decades ago from the vestibule of a Moscow metro station, was recently restored.
Last year, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev denounced efforts to portray Stalin as a "brilliant manager" rather than a murderous autocrat.
Oleg Khlebnikov, a Novaya Gazeta deputy editor, expressed satisfaction with the ruling.
He said Stalin's complete rehabilitation could only happen if courts decide he was not a tyrant.
Associated Press Writer Steve Gutterman contributed to this report.