Russia finally closed one of the most brutal and embarrassing episodes of its ongoing conflict in Chechnya on Friday when a colonel was sentenced to 10 years in jail for the kidnap and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen woman.
Colonel Yuri Budanov was found guilty by a military court in the southern city of Rostov on Don and was stripped of his military rank and awards. On being sentenced, Budanov removed the cotton plugs that had blanked out proceedings in court for the last few days of the trial. The 40-year-old soldier had to be escorted from the courtroom during this second trial owing to frequent outbursts.
Budanov was the first and most senior Russian soldier to go on trial for human-rights abuses committed by federal troops in the war-torn republic.
The family of Elza Kungayeva, the Chechen teenager whom Budanov and his troops abducted, say their daughter had been raped during a drunken rampage by Russian troops. This charge was excluded from the trial, and denied by Budanov. The original trial descended into farce when the state prosecutor dropped the murder charge and argued Budanov should be freed under an amnesty because of his record of valorous service.
The 10-year sentence is less than the 12 years sought by the state prosecutor and the 15 years urged by the family. The court said Budanov's physical condition, his two dependent children and his expression of guilt immediately after the killing helped to lessen the sentence. It added that the three years he had already served would count towards his sentence. He also has to pay the equivalent of US$7,000 to the girl's family for "moral damages."
The relatively light term will be seen as a partial concession to military hardliners who sympathize with Budanov's claim that he was "in a fit of rage" when he strangled the woman, brought on by years of hard service in the brutal Chechen conflict. He has admitted the killing, saying he thought the teenager was a sniper bent on attacking his men. He later ordered them to bury her body.
The case has become a notorious test of Russia's tolerance of the abuses committed daily by its troops in Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin's hardline spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, pandered to public opinion last December by saying Budanov should be severely punished.
Human-rights groups said the sentencing was too little, too late. Alexander Petrov, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, said: "The most important point is that the courts have finally made a decision. But the number of human-rights violations going on right now in Chechnya runs into the thousands. This is an exceptional case where there has actually been an investigation, hearings and a court sentencing."
Yesterday's ruling ends a two-year saga of court rulings and psychiatric reports. The court found that Budanov was sane at the time of the murder in March 2000.
This overturned last December's psychiatric report which declared him to have been "temporarily insane" at the time of the killing, and therefore not criminally liable for the murder.
After public outcry at the self-confessed killer being "let off," the supreme court in February ordered the case be sent back for retrial in a military court in Rostov on Don, considered a potentially more sympathetic environment.