The only Russian officer to be charged for war crimes in Chechnya has been acquitted on the basis that he raped and murdered a teenaged girl while suffering from temporary insanity. Colonel Yury Budanov was cleared of all charges against him on December 31. As the first and only case in which a serving Russian officer in Chechnya was charged with an atrocity committed, Budanov’s case was seen as a test of how a Russian military court treated one of its own officers, apprehended for a serious crime.
Budanov, commander of the 160th tank regiment in Chechnya, was charged with the murder of the 18-year-old Kheda Kungayeva in March 2000. The girl was also raped, but no rape charge was brought against Budanov.
The crime took place on March 26, 2000, the day in which Vladimir Putin was confirmed as president of Russia. Its basic facts, including the fact that Budanov raped and killed the girl, are not disputed.
The atrocity began with Budanov and a group of his soldiers arriving at the house of the Kungayev family in the Chechen village of Tangi-Chu in an armoured personnel carrier. Kheda Kungayeva was alone in the house, as her parents were not at home. Budanov and three othersoldiers seized Kheda and took her back with them to their base.
Later that evening, Budanov summoned his soldiers and ordered them to bury her dead body in woodland. He himself was in his underwear, while her clothes had been slashed with a knife. A medical examination later determined that the girl had been raped and strangled.
Such was the brutality of Budanov’s crime that it was reported to senior Russian authorities by other Russian soldiers. His arrest was ordered by the Russian general Valery Gerasimov, but he resisted the order, supported by his chief of staff Ivan Fyodorov and several of his own soldiers. He was detained and finally brought to trial in February 2001, in a military court in the city of Rostov-on-Don, where he was finally acquitted last month.
Budanov’s defence team’s immediate strategy was to establish that Budanov was mentally unstable at the time of the crime, and the delay in the hearing of the case was caused by repeated psychiatric examinations carried out at the demand of his own lawyers after an initial examination by military doctors and psychiatrists had judged him to be sane. It took a number of subsequent examinations, including three by the Serbsky Institute in Moscow, for him to be declared first to be “temporarily insane” and finally to have been insane for a period of three months before he committed the murder.
In the courtroom, Budanov was reported to be completely calm and normal, and was considered by journalists and other observers to be completely sane. Just before the end of the trial, a scandal erupted, however, when Abdullah Khamzayev, the lawyer representing Kheda Kungayeva, said that Budanov gave the impression of being an entirely sane person. Budanov swore at Khamzayev and accused him of being responsible for the deaths of Russian soldiers. He was excluded from the court-room and was not present when the trial ended.
The trial was highly politicised: the defence claimed that Budanov was a distinguished soldier, and that Kheda Kungayeva had been arrested because she was suspected of being a sniper. They also claimed that her village, Tangi-Chu, was a Chechen stronghold, where a Russian helicopter had been shot down and three tanks destroyed by Chechens.
These claims were vigorously denied by local witnesses, who described Kheda Kungayeva as a “shy and retiring” Muslim girl who rarely left her home, and said that the village had not been directly involved in any military fighting.
Visa Kungayev, Kheda’s father, said after the trail that: “Throughout the whole trial we felt that we were not the victims, but the accused... The military, as represented by influential generals [Vladimir] Shamanov and [Gennady] Troshev and others set themselves the goal of getting Budanov out of jail at any price.”
Lieutenant-general Vladimir Shamanov, a former senior commander in Chechnya who is now governor of Ulyanovsk region, publicly defended Budanov, calling him a “talented commander” and an “honest citizen of our country.”
The family complained that the trial had been weighted against them. Several of their basic demands, including inviting General Gerasimov, who had arrested Budanov, to testify, were not accepted. They are now appealing the verdict.
Few in Chechnya are surprised by the verdict, however. “I remember one of Budanov’s comments in the court room,” one Chechen has said. “He said in his defence: ‘I did what others are doing in Chechnya.’ And that’s the way it is, a huge number of similar crimes have been committed in the years of the war and only Colonel Budanov ended up in the dock.”