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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 16:38 GMT
Killer colonel cleared of murder
Russian Colonel  Yuri Budanov
Budanov is seen by some Russians as a hero
A Russian military court has ruled that a senior military officer who admitted strangling a Chechen teenager was temporarily insane at the time.

Colonel Yuri Budanov is to undergo psychiatric treatment, instead of facing a lengthy prison term.

He is the first high-ranking military officer to be brought to trial for such a serious offence, despite widespread accusations of human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya.

The family of the victim, 18-year-old Kheda Kungayeva, said the doctors who declared Colonel Budanov insane had conducted a biased evaluation aimed at exonerating him.

But their report, presented earlier this month, was accepted as correct by the court in Rostov-on-Don.

There is no hope any more for Chechens that the crimes of Russian forces against the civilian population will be punished

Tatiana Kasatkina
Human rights activist
Ms Kungayeva's family says that Russian soldiers dragged her from her home at night, before raping and murdering her in a drunken rampage.

Colonel Budanov initially faced a charge of rape as well as murder, but it was subsequently dropped.

Colonel Budanov said he suspected the teenager of being a rebel sniper who had killed some of his comrades. He said he killed her while in a rage during his interrogation of her.

He had faced a sentence of up to 12 years in prison if found guilty of murder.

The case has polarised public opinion in Russia - from those who see Colonel Budanov as a hero, to others who say he has got away with murder because his victim was Chechen.

Lawyers for the victim's family have questioned the verdict, asking why if the colonel was insane he was allowed to command a key Russian tank unit.

Justice tested

And the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Moscow says this case has been seen as a key test of Russian justice, and, for Chechens at least, the court's verdict proves Russia has failed that test.

The verdict was denounced by human rights campaigners, who said Russian soldiers had been given a free hand to carry out human rights abuses.

The Russian army today is an independent political force, as it was in the darkest periods of our history

Svetlana Gannushkina
Refugee aid group
"The Budanov case was so clear-cut and yet the murderer has escaped punishment," Tatiana Kasatkina from the Russian human rights group Memorial told the French news agency AFP.

"There is no hope any more for Chechens that the crimes of Russian forces against the civilian population will be punished."

The verdict would "further undermine the trust of the Chechen people", said Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of refugee aid group Civic Assistance.

"The Russian army today is an independent political force, as it was in the darkest periods of our history," she said.

"That may have catastrophic consequences."

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Moscow
"Russian ultra-nationalists believe he's a Russian hero"
See also:

20 Apr 02 | Europe
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28 Feb 01 | Europe
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06 May 02 | Country profiles
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