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When The (Russian) Punishment Doesn't Fit The Crime

A makeshift memorial to football fan Yury Volkov, who was killed in a July 2010 street brawl.
A makeshift memorial to football fan Yury Volkov, who was killed in a July 2010 street brawl.
Last week, a court in Moscow sentenced Akhmedpasha Aydayev, a 23-year-old native of Chechnya, to 17 years in a maximum security jail over the killing in a July 2010 street brawl of Yury Volkov, a Spartak Moscow FC fan.

The other defendant in the case, Bek-Khan Ibragimov, also a Chechen, was found guilty of hooliganism and inflicting light bodily injury and sentenced to six years in a general regime penitentiary. A third Chechen, Magomed Suleimanov, who first admitted killing Volkov but later retracted his confession, was considered a witness by police.

The conviction and sentences handed down to Aydayev and Ibragimov were based on the conclusion of the investigators that they instigated the fight that ended in the fatal stabbing of Volkov outside a Moscow metro station last summer. Both men, however, denied their guilt, claiming Spartak fans had dragged them into the fight.

Indeed, it seems odd that three rather unathletic-looking visitors to the nation's capital would pick a fight with eight intoxicated local soccer fans – six men and two women. Against a background of growing intercommunal tensions in the country and the rise of nationalist and xenophobic sentiment among many Russians, particularly in Moscow, that would surely have been inviting trouble.

Another oddity that didn't pass unnoticed was the fact the trial was held behind closed doors and in great haste. The sentences were passed just one day before the annual "Russian March." Their extreme severity was intended to placate the Russian nationalists, defense lawyers believe. Probably with good reason.

To Appease The Nationalists?

Just five days earlier, the same Moscow City Court found another North Caucasus resident guilty of murdering an ethnic Russian in December 2010 during a late-night street fight between drunken soccer fans and a group of young men from the North Caucasus region. On that occasion, the alleged killer, Aslan Cherkesov, was put behind bars for 20 years. And again the sentence, which was harsh by any standards, fueled suspicions that the trial and sentencing were timed to appease the nationalists ahead of the planned rallies on November 4.

Akhmedpasha Aydayev
Akhmedpasha Aydayev
The deaths of the two soccer fans, which their supporters believe were driven by ethnic hatred, provoked mass antigovernment riots. A protest in central Moscow on December 11, 2010, where radical soccer fans chanted nationalist slogans, fought with police, and beat all "non-Slavs" in their way visibly rattled the Russian authorities. But the policy of appeasement of some at the expense of others is deeply misguided and will only encourage further acts of violence.

To add insult to injury, the Russian courts appear to be handing down much lighter sentences to ethnic Russians who murder non-Russians. On May 17, 2005, a certain Valery Novikov, a resident of the town of Kronstadt, opened fire on three Chechen neighbors, killing one and wounding the other two. The police investigation found that Novikov acted out of "personal enmity," meaning he had simply taken a dislike to those neighbors.

In April, a Kronstadt court found Novikov guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to five years in prison.

'Shy And Timid'

Perhaps the most blatant miscarriage of justice was the high-profile case of the late Yury Budanov, a highly decorated Russian tank regiment commander who was arrested in Chechnya on March 29, 2000, on charges of kidnapping, raping, and murdering Elza Kungayeva, a Chechen teenager who was characterized in her last school report, dated 1999, as "modest, kind, extremely shy, and timid."

On March 26, the day Vladimir Putin was elected the Kremlin's new master, Budanov was drinking heavily, military investigators found, celebrating his daughter's second birthday. At 1 a.m. the next day, he burst into the house in the village of Tangi-Chu in western Chechnya where Elza lived with her parents and four younger siblings. Budanov and three of his soldiers pounced on the girl, dragged her screaming from her home, and drove off in a tank to the base. An hour later, she was dead.

Budanov initially told investigators he arrested Elza Kungayeva by mistake and killed her in a fit of rage when she insulted him during interrogation. Later he claimed that he received reports she was a rebel sniper. Two forensic examinations conducted after Kungayeva's body was exhumed in a nearby forest did not show any signs of Elza having ever handled a sniper rifle. They did reveal, however, that the teen had been raped an hour before her death.

And yet, Budanov almost got away with the crime. Thanks to a spontaneous, large-scale mobilization of support started by a number of senior army commanders -- most notably Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, currently Commander of Russia's Airborne Troops, as well as politicians, the media and ordinary Russians -- Budanov was initially acquitted.

Former Russian Army Colonel Yury Budanov, convicted of murdering a teenaged Chechen woman, was gunned down in Moscow in June.
Former Russian Army Colonel Yury Budanov, convicted of murdering a teenaged Chechen woman, was gunned down in Moscow in June.
Released For 'Good Behavior'

The colonel was convicted only in July 2003, most probably because the new Kremlin leadership, criticized in the West for the atrocities in Chechnya, seized on Budanov's case as an opportunity to prove that Russian servicemen in Chechnya were held accountable for their actions.

Budanov was released for "good behavior" in January 2009 after serving only part of his 10-year jail term, a move that caused an outcry in Chechnya. Budanov didn't enjoy his freedom for long, however. In June, somebody put four bullets through his brain outside a notary's office in central Moscow.

Budanov's case stands out in Russia's recent legal history. He was the first Russian military man to be prosecuted for a crime against a Chechen civilian and one of very few Russians to be put on trial for crimes committed during the two Chechen wars. Many others just walked free.

The glaring disparity between sentences for manslaughter or murder handed to down to men from the North Caucasus, on the one hand, and ethnic Russians, on the other, sends equally pernicious messages to those two groups. It undermines what fragmentary faith the population of the North Caucasus still has in the Russian judicial system, and the Russian authorities as a whole. And it confirms Russia's nationalists and xenophobes in the belief that the murder of "persons of Caucasian nationality" hardly qualifies as a crime but, on the contrary, elicits leniency from judges and sympathy -- even approval -- from the population at large.