The only Russian officer charged with a serious crime against a civilian in Chechnya was cleared of criminal responsibility in the case today, with a military court ruling he was temporarily insane at the time of the killing of a young Chechen woman and ordering him to a psychiatric hospital.
Human rights groups were quick to condemn the ruling on Col. Yuri Budanov as proof that Russia is not serious about cracking down on abuses by its soldiers against civilians in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Even the Kremlin's handpicked human rights ombudsman called the decision "an alarming symptom" of problems in the Russian army. The court's verdict came after nearly two years of procedural delays, political protests and repeated psychiatric evaluations that turned the case into a cause celebre here.
"For the civilian residents of Chechnya, it means the military can still do whatever they want with impunity and no civilian resident will be protected from arbitrary actions," said Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center. "The Budanov case shows that human rights abuses in Chechnya will go uninvestigated and unpunished."
The symbolic nature of the case was underscored by Budanov's supporters as well. "Our Russian army has been protected," said one of his attorneys, Alexei Dulimov. He called Budanov one of many "Russian fighters defending the honor of our state, the unity and integrity of this Chechen republic" and said the court "has acquitted both the Russian army and Budanov."
The verdict came at an especially sensitive time in the long-running Chechen war, after a series of attacks by Chechen guerrillas that have shocked the country and proved that a war in which the Kremlin has declared victory is far from over. On Friday, suicide bombers attacked the offices of the pro-Russian administration in the Chechen capital, Grozny, killing more than 80 people. In October, a group of Chechen commandos seized a Moscow theater in a standoff that ended with the deaths of 129 hostages.
In another indication that Russia is preparing to take a harder line in Chechnya, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced that a major European human rights group will no longer be allowed to maintain a permanent presence in Chechnya. The decision means that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will have to shut down its operations as of Wednesday.
The OSCE has been one of the few international groups still working in Chechnya, and it has been critical of the Russian troops' behavior there, questioning methods used in the widespread zachistki -- or mopping-up operations -- frequently conducted against the civilian population.
In a statement today, Ivanov said the Russian government wanted the OSCE to focus its work instead on humanitarian relief operations. "Unfortunately, not all our partners were ready to adequately assess the situation and to fully understand the new reality in Chechnya," he said.
Shortly after that announcement, the Budanov decision was read in a military courtroom in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Budanov was not present. Also absent were attorneys for the family of Elza Kungayeva, the 18-year-old Chechen woman strangled by Budanov on March 27, 2000.
But an emotional Budanov supporter shouted "Freedom!" as the verdict was read, and Budanov's attorneys were on hand to hail the ruling.
Military prosecutors had joined with the victim's family in asking that Budanov be sentenced to prison. But a psychiatric evaluation released this month by Moscow's Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry determined that the colonel had been temporarily insane at the time of the killing, and the military judge agreed with that assessment today.
The role of psychiatry in the long-running case has also been controversial. Budanov was evaluated four times -- twice by military doctors who found him competent to stand trial and twice at Serbsky. Human rights activists have recalled the Serbsky Institute's role in Soviet times of using psychiatry to condemn hundreds, if not thousands, of political dissidents, and have suggested the institute still operates in the service of the state.
"I refused to be used as window dressing in the court for these proceedings," said Stanislav Markelov, one of the Kungayeva family lawyers.
He said today's ruling had been "a foregone conclusion" after the Serbsky evaluation. A Budanov attorney, however, praised the court for what he called "the triumph of legality" in the case. Anatoly Mukhin said Budanov is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems as a result of several concussions he sustained before Kungayeva's killing. Mukhin said he expected that Budanov will be transferred to a psychiatric hospital within days, and that the victim's family will appeal to the Russian Supreme Court.