A Russian military court has begun the retrial of an army officer whose prosecution for killing a young Chechen woman has been seen as a test case for human rights.
Budanov has launched a hunger strike
Colonel Yuri Budanov is alleged to have strangled 18-year-old Kheda Kungayeva - whom he says he thought was a sniper - while serving in the Chechen war zone.
Colonel Budanov admitted killing Miss Kungayeva at the original trial, and was convicted in December 2002 of manslaughter on the grounds of temporary insanity.
A charge of rape was dropped by prosecutors, and he was ordered to be confined to a hospital for mental treatment.
But a higher court subsequently overturned the verdict after objections from campaigners for human rights in Chechnya.
Jury demand dropped
The trial, which opened in Rostov-on-Don on Monday, will hear that the colonel detained Miss Kungayeva in the Chechen village of Tangi on 27 March 2000, took her back to his unit for interrogation, then strangled her and ordered his soldiers to bury the body.
The court will hear from 21 witnesses for the prosecution before witnesses for the defence.
27 March 2000: Kheda Kungayeva killed
31 December 2002: Yuri Budanov convicted of manslaughter
28 February 2003: Verdict quashed by Russian Supreme Court
Colonel Budanov is the highest-ranking officer to be tried for crimes against civilians in Chechnya.
The defendant announced a hunger strike at a preliminary hearing on 9 April in protest at what he called the prejudice of the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office and the attempts by Miss Kungayeva's family to prolong the judicial process.
His defence has, however, dropped a demand for trial by jury.
The case has been seen by many abroad as a test of whether Moscow is willing to clamp down on human rights abuses by its forces in Chechnya.
Miss Kungayeva's family says she was taken from her home at night, raped and murdered during a drunken rampage by Russian soldiers.
Colonel Budanov commanded a front-line tank regiment before his arrest and frequently featured in Russian TV reports during the fighting which followed the re-entry of Russian troops into Chechnya in 1999 to suppress separatist rebels.
Barely a day passes without fighting
Russian soldiers who served on the ground in Chechnya have testified that the rebels frequently used women snipers but there is little hard evidence.
Correspondents say there is little sympathy among Russians for the suffering of civilians in Chechnya, following the siege of a Moscow theatre last October by Chechen rebels.
However, human rights activists remain concerned that the original verdict may have sent out the message that Russian soldiers can commit crimes in Chechnya without fear of punishment.
Chechnya's Moscow-appointed Prime Minister, Anatoli Popov, said this week that 300 Russian servicemen were currently under investigation over the disappearance of hundreds of people during fighting in Chechnya in 2002.
In other recent Chechen developments:
- A lieutenant-colonel of the Russian police is killed and five other senior officers are wounded in an ambush in the Chechen town of Argun
- Rebels post pictures on a website of an attack on police cars near Grozny last Tuesday which they say killed 17 policemen - no confirmation from Russian sources
Sergey Yushenkov, the prominent Russian MP known for his strong opposition to military action in Chechnya, is assassinated in Moscow