Russian officer is finally jailed for murder of Chechen

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The Independent Online

The first Russian officer to be tried for serious crimes against civilians in Chechnya was jailed for 10 years by a military court yesterday for abducting and murdering a woman.

Colonel Yury Budanov, an artillery officer, was arrested three years ago after he and the soldiers under his command went on a "drunken rampage" in a Chechen village and kidnapped, raped and strangled Elza Kungayeva, 18.

The court, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, ruled that Budanov was guilty of abduction, murder and abuse of power. It sentenced him to 10 years in a labour camp, stripped him of his military rank and revoked the Order of Courage award that he won fighting in Chechnya.

Budanov's long and tangled legal process has polarised Russian society, infuriated military hardliners and deeply embarrassed the Kremlin. A crowd of Budanov's supporters from the ultra-right Russian National Unity Party and other nationalist groups demonstrated in front of the court as he was led away to prison.

Several military leaders spoke in Budanov's defence at his trial, arguing that he was a "good soldier" who was being scapegoated by politicians looking to avoid the blame for the carnage of the war in Chechnya.

Even Sergei Ivanov, the Russian Defence minister, a personal friend and political ally of President Vladimir Putin, said that he sympathised with Budanov "in human terms".

In court Budanov admitted killing Ms Kungayeva, but claimed that he did it in "a fit of rage" while interrogating her as a suspected terrorist.

A lower military court dismissed the charges against Budanov last year after hearing psychiatric testimony that he was "temporarily insane" when he committed the crime.

That decision outraged Russian liberals and confounded the Kremlin, which claims it has restored rule of law to Chechnya. Moscow's credibility had been damaged by the failure until now to convict a single Russian officer for abuses in Chechnya, despite massive evidence compiled by human rights groups that Russian security forces there routinely carry out rape, abduction, torture and murder.

Under pressure from President Putin, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's judgment and ordered a retrial.

Budanov had strongly objected to his second trial during which he stuffed cotton wool into his ears. He was often taken out of the courtroom because of his outbursts.

A new psychiatric report presented to the court last month found that Budanov was in a "highly agitated condition" but sane at the time of the killing. The judge said that he based his decision on the new psychiatric report. He also rejected claims by the defence that Budanov had thought Ms Kungayeva was a sniper.

Budanov remained silent throughout the hearing and refused to make a final statement. After the sentence was announced, Budanov spoke briefly with his wife, Svetlana and his sister, who both left the courtroom in tears.

The prosecutor, Vladimir Milovanov, said that he was satisfied with the jail term although it was shorter than the 12 years he had requested. "I think it was legal, well-grounded and objective," he said. But Ms Kungayeva's family and lawyers had asked the court to sentence Budanov to life imprisonment, and said that the verdict was far too lenient.

"When Chechens go on trial for similar crimes - murders, abduction - this same court metes out immeasurably more severe sentences," the family's lawyer, Abdul Khamzayev said.

Budanov's lawyer, Alexei Dumilov, said that he would appeal against the sentence. "This sentence is too harsh," he said. "It has no legal grounds."

A former lawyer for Budanov, Anatoly Mukhin, said that the sentence was "wrong at its roots". He added: "A person who served 20 years in the armed forces to become a colonel and who has been through military action deserved more positive treatment from his own state and justice system."

Budanov's 10-year sentence will include the three years he has spent in custody. The court also ordered him to pay more than 500,000 roubles (£10,000) to his victim's family in damages.