Moscow, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A pre-trial hearing was held today in the case of a Russian officer accused of abducting and murdering a Chechen woman during Russia's war in the breakaway republic.
Colonel Yuri Budanov, who won a medal for his service in Chechnya, appeared in front of a military court in the southern town of Rostov-on-Don. It is the first such case to go to trial in the course of the 17-month war. But human rights organizations say it is only one of many crimes committed by Russian soldiers against civilians.
Today's hearing at the Rostov district military court was quickly suspended until tomorrow. According to private NTV television, the court rejected the defense lawyer's request for a closed trial. Other media reports said the atmosphere inside the tiny courtroom was tense, with both relatives of the 18-year-old victim, Kheda Kungayeva, and supporters of Budanov in attendance. Budanov's former commander, Vladimir Shamanov -- now a regional governor -- was also present.
NTV showed several dozen demonstrators demanding Budanov's release.
The same court also will hear allegations that another officer, Colonel Ivan Fyodorov, "exercised by firing on peaceful civilians" while stationed in Chechnya.
Human rights organizations say that the outcome of the two cases will be a signal to all those who committed crimes against civilians. In an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent, Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch called the trial "exceptional":
"It's exceptional for a couple of reasons. For the swiftness with which the crime against Kheda Kungayeva was acknowledged. And it was also exceptional with regard to the degree of diligence with which the investigation for the most part was conducted. And it's going to trial. What's not unique about this case is the kinds of crimes that have been perpetrated."
The events took place nearly a year ago, when tank division commander Budanov in late March drove into the Chechen village of Tangi-Chu in a military vehicle with three subordinates.
Kungayeva's family said Budanov -- who had a reputation for violence and drinking -- broke into their home and dragged away Kheda, the eldest daughter. She was found buried in a nearby forest a day later, strangled and bruised.
Russian command reacted immediately to the incident, putting Budanov under arrest. The head of Russia's General Staff, General Anatoli Kvashnin, called the murder a "savage" act and a "disgrace." Together with soldiers from Budanov's regiment, top military officials attended Kungayeva's funeral the day after the body was found.
The authorities' quick reaction in the Budanov case contrasts sharply with official indifference to hundreds of allegations by Chechen civilians of similar abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers. Vladimir Kalamanov, the Kremlin's human rights commissioner for Chechnya, says only about 40 such cases are being investigated.
Budanov's lawyer, Aleksei Mukhin, told NTV television today his client "partially admits" his guilt. Budanov claims he lost control during a formal interrogation of Kungayeva, whom he suspected of working as a sniper for Chechen rebels.
Kungayeva's family and some human rights organizations are satisfied that the case is going to trial but accuse Russian officials of trying to cover up their claim that Kungayeva was raped in addition to being beaten and strangled. While Human Rights Watch has said it is not entirely clear that it was Budanov who raped her, it cites a forensic report clearly indicating that Kungayeva had been raped. Rape had been considered among the charges against Budanov but was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Budanov stands accused of three crimes: abduction resulting in death, murder, and abuse of office. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Budanov's lawyer, Mukhin, has said little about his client's defense. He did suggest, however, that Budanov was in an abnormal psychological state when Kungayeva was abducted. Mukhin said his client's difficulty sleeping was a sign of post-traumatic stress suffered in Chechnya.