The Russian Supreme Court today ordered a new trial for a colonel who admitted killing an 18-year-old Chechen woman but was cleared of criminal responsibility by a lower court on grounds of temporary insanity.
"Finally I can say that justice has been served," Abdulla Khamzayev, an attorney for the victim's family, said in a choked voice outside a Moscow courthouse. "At a certain stage the dictatorship of law is triumphing on the land."
To many Chechens and some Russians, the case against Col. Yuri Budanov is a test of Russian government promises to punish servicemen who commit crimes in the southern republic, the scene of a wrenching separatist war. Human rights groups have accused the Russian military of ignoring a well-documented, widespread pattern of abuse by its soldiers.
The trial has also drawn emotional protests from Budanov's supporters, who have said he is being persecuted for performing his duty against a violent insurgency.
Budanov, a tank regiment commander, admitted that he seized Elza Kungayeva, from her home in Chechnya in March 2000, cut off her clothes and strangled her on a cot in his army tent. The girl's family alleged that Budanov also raped her, but he was not charged with that offense. Military investigators found the colonel ordered his subordinates to hide the body in nearby woods.
Budanov's attorneys argued that he killed Kungayeva in a fit of rage during an interrogation, believing her to be a sniper who had killed several of his soldiers.
The regional court in Rostov-on-Don ordered four psychiatric evaluations of Budanov. The first panel ruled he was sane; the second panel's findings were never made public; the last two concluded that Budanov was temporarily insane. The Rostov judges accepted the fourth finding and ordered that Budanov receive psychiatric treatment instead of being imprisoned.
The Supreme Court criticized those judges for failing to take into account the fact that for six months before the murder, Budanov "successfully commanded his regiment, took part in military operations, received a promotion, all the time showing absolutely normal behavior."
The presiding judge, Nikolai Petrukhov, also said the regional judges failed to factor in the lack of evidence that the girl was involved with Chechen rebels.
Vladimir Milovanov, an aide to the chief military prosecutor, said his side was ready for a new trial and would pursue the same strategy as before. The prosecution had joined the family in seeking a prison term. There was no immediate comment from Budanov's lawyers.
Vissa Kungayev, the young woman's father, told reporters that his younger daughter urged him not to go to Moscow for the ruling, telling him "there is not justice there."
"So I will go home and I will tell my daughter: 'Finally justice has been served,' " he said. "And I am very happy!"