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San Francisco Chronicle
January 1, 2003
Russian absolved in Chechen death
Insanity verdict worries rights activists
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer

Moscow -- In a move Russian liberals say discredits the Kremlin's commitment to discipline its troops fighting Islamic separatists in the volatile republic of Chechnya, a military court Tuesday absolved a Russian colonel who had strangled a teenage Chechen girl of criminal responsibility.

The court in Rostov-on-Don said Col. Yuri Budanov, a former tank regiment commander in Chechnya who had confessed to killing 18-year-old Heda Kungayeva in March 2000, was temporarily insane at the time of the killing and committed him to a psychiatric hospital.

The verdict is likely to anger many in Chechnya, where both ordinary people and international human rights groups charge that Russian servicemen have been routinely raping, looting and killing civilians since they re-entered the breakaway republic in 1999.

Despite widespread accusations of abuses, Budanov is the only senior Russian officer to go on trial for crimes against civilians in Chechnya.

Many viewed the case as an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its dedication to punishing brutality committed by its own soldiers. But Tuesday's decision signalled just the opposite.

Liberal observers said the verdict shows that Chechen civilians have no one to turn to for protection.

"There is no hope anymore for Chechens that the crimes of Russian forces against the civilian population will be punished," Tatyana Kasatkina of Memorial, a Russian human rights group, told Agence France-Presse. "The Budanov case was so clear-cut, and yet the murderer has escaped punishment."

In a statement, Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division based in New York, called the trial "a travesty of justice."

"If Russian authorities continue to shield servicemen from accountability and deny justice to their victims, the conflict in Chechnya may never be resolved. The vicious cycle of abuse and impunity must be broken."

Budanov admitted strangling Kungayeva, whom he said he had suspected of being a rebel sniper who had killed some of his comrades. He said he was in a rage during her interrogation.

But Kungayeva's family says Budanov dragged the girl from her home in the southern village of Tangi-Chu in the middle of the night, raped her and murdered her. Although an autopsy report proved that Kungayeva had been sexually assaulted, the prosecution eventually dropped rape charges against Budanov.

The case, which dragged on for nearly three years, was beset by court delays, contradictory evidence and a refusal to hear witnesses. The prosecutors charged Budanov with aggravated murder, then suggested that he be pardoned, then reversed course again. Psychiatric studies -- carried out by the Serbsky Institute for Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow, which is still tainted by its complicity in the Soviet practice of sending dissidents to mental hospitals -- showed that Budanov was temporarily insane, then sane again, then insane.

On Tuesday, instead of the 12-year sentence the prosecution had demanded, the court ruled that Budanov must undergo psychiatric treatment in a hospital. He can be released as soon as doctors find him sane again.

Another officer, Lt. Ivan Fyodorov, was tried along with Budanov. He was found guilty Tuesday of abuse of authority for participating with Budanov in the beating of another officer. Fyodorov was sentenced to three years imprisonment but is expected to be freed under an amnesty announced in 2000 for people sentenced to three years or less.

Budanov's supporters were pleased by Tuesday's verdict. TVS television showed a woman in the courtroom singing "Freedom! Freedom!" and punching the air with her fists.

Some 50 members of the ultranationalist group known as Russian National Unity, wearing black armbands with the organization's insignia, stood outside the court to demonstrate support for Budanov.

In Moscow, a pro-Kremlin legislator cast the Budanov case in terms of demonstrating the perils for servicemen trying to perform their duties in Chechnya.

The Interfax news agency quoted Nikolai Bezborodov, deputy chairman of the parliament's defense committee, as saying that if a special forces group stops suspected rebels for an identity check, "there is no guarantee that a prosecutor with handcuffs will not show up at their door in the morning saying they have murdered a Russian citizen."

In another development, the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it is ending a monitoring mission in Chechnya after failing to agree with Russia about the scope of its mandate.

Diplomats said renewal of the mission foundered on the language governing the monitors' activities. Russia believes the group should not try to arrange a political settlement in Chechnya. It also views the monitors' human rights concerns as interference in Russia's internal affairs.

Human Rights Watch's Andersen said: "Closing down the OSCE mission is part of Russia's strategy to cut off scrutiny of human rights conditions in Chechnya and portray the situation as normalizing. . . . Unfortunately, the situation remains far from normal."

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