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Russian Officer Goes on Trial, Cards Stacked in His Favor

Crime: Military first denounced colonel accused in Chechen girl's slaying, then accepted his story.

February 26, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The soldiers came at midnight. As they stood outside his door, Vissa Kungayev heard the Russians lock and load their weapons.

Usually, the soldiers were looking for men, so Kungayev fled out the back, leaving his five children inside. But unfortunately for the Chechen's 18-year-old daughter, Kheda, this time the soldiers were looking for a woman.

Kungayev's brother, who lived nearby, heard a commotion and arrived in time to see a soldier sling Kheda over his shoulder. She was unconscious and wrapped in a blanket. In the dark corridor, an officer turned and met his gaze.

"He was a colonel--three stars, a clean uniform," Kungayev recounted later. There was no mistaking the face: Col. Yuri Budanov, a well-known figure in the Chechen village of Tangi-Chu, commander of the tank regiment stationed nearby.

Kheda was dead by morning. An autopsy report determined that she had been raped an hour before she was strangled. For most of the time before her death, she was alone in a tent with the colonel.

This week, Budanov is scheduled to go on trial in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don in the kidnapping and murder of Kheda Kungayeva. He is the first prominent Russian military man to be prosecuted for a crime against a Chechen civilian.

Human rights groups have documented hundreds of killings and other rights violations believed to have been committed by Russian servicemen in Chechnya, a southern republic seeking its independence. But Russian officials have shown little enthusiasm for investigating them.

The Budanov case is an exception. But human rights workers say it would be wrong to consider it a test case; it's the only case.

"We definitely welcome this trial. If he did it, he should be brought to justice," said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "But all the other people who committed crimes should be brought to justice as well. And that's not happening."

According to the Kremlin's human rights commissioner for Chechnya, by the end of last year military prosecutors were investigating 12 cases in which servicemen are accused of killing civilians. It is unclear how many of those cases involve ordinary crimes and how many what could be considered war crimes.

For the most part, Russian officials downplay allegations of crimes committed by servicemen in Chechnya, insisting that the rebels they are trying to defeat in the separatist region are guilty of far worse.

"Considering the available facts concerning crimes committed by servicemen against civilians, one must underscore that they are sporadic and rare," Yuri Puzanov, spokesman for the human rights commissioner, wrote in response to a query from The Times.

That attitude is why the Budanov case stands out. After the slaying March 27, Russian officials, including Gen. Anatoly V. Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, announced on television that Budanov had "humiliated" and killed a Chechen girl, and Kvashnin denounced the crime as "barbaric and disgraceful."

At the time, Russia was being condemned in the West for reports of summary executions, torture and other human rights violations in the war zone. Some in the military, including Budanov's commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, began to speculate publicly that Budanov was being used as a scapegoat to appease the West.

"Maybe they needed a scapegoat last year," Lohman said. "And maybe this year they need to show that their investigative record isn't so bad."

From the start, Budanov confessed to the slaying but denied the rape. He said he was interrogating Kheda in his tent, believing that she was a sniper who had been shooting at his troops, when she insulted him and he lost control.

"He says his actions were provoked," Andrei Klemanov, chief of investigations for the North Caucasus military procurator, told The Times in a telephone interview. "After she started to insult him, he says he was driven by emotions that overwhelmed him. This story is quite credible."

Budanov's version has become the official version. Prosecutors have dropped the rape charge.

"We established that there was no act of sexual intercourse, let alone an act of rape," said Klemanov. "No sperm or other direct evidence was ever found."

Instead, he asserted, the body was "desecrated" after death. Budanov ordered three servicemen to carry off the body and bury it, which they did, and, during the operation, one of the servicemen "desecrated" the body, Klemanov said.

But according to a copy of the autopsy report obtained by The Times, medical examiners determined that Kheda's hymen had been torn by penetration about an hour before her death. The report noted bleeding from the tears, which the medical examiner said means that she was alive at the time of the penetration.

In Chechen culture, rape can be considered more dishonorable than murder.

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