Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 18

The Yury Budanov case continues to test the Russian judicial system’s ability to bring to justice Russian servicemen accused of atrocities against Chechen civilians. The case is still proceeding at a glacial pace; the latest hearing was delayed until May 26 after Budanov’s new lawyer, Aleksei Dulimov, told the court that he is not feeling well. According to the Novosti news agency, neurosurgeons are to examine Budanov during the delay to see whether old head wounds from previous military action may have affected his mental health. (It was on mental health grounds that, in December, a court held Budanov to be exempt from criminal responsibility for his admitted killing of an 18-year-old Chechen girl. He was accused of raping her as well.) Thus, more than three years after the death of Heda Kungaeva, the court may now be given a new justification for finding her killer not guilty by reason of insanity.

Also postponed until May 26 is discussion of Budanov’s psychiatric examinations, both those past and those (possibly) to come. A May 12 session of the military court of the Northern Caucasus Okrug, based in Rostov, decided to require a new psychiatric examination in addition to the three that have already been conducted. But presiding judge Vladimir Bukreev failed to resolve the most controversial question about the new examination: Who should perform it? The lawyer representing Kungaeva’s family, Abdula Khamzaev, rejects the validity of two previous examinations that were performed by the Serbsky Institute, notorious during the Soviet years for its false diagnoses of dissidents as mentally ill. Instead, Khamzaev wants the court to assign the new examination to a state hospital in St. Petersburg.

Bukreev was given jurisdiction of the case after Russia’s Supreme Court ruled in February that it should be retried. After an outcry of protests both within Russia and abroad, the Supreme Court had overruled the New Year’s Eve verdict of Bukreev’s colleagues on the Rostov court. They had said that Budanov was not criminally responsible for his killing of Kungaeva on mental-health grounds (see Chechnya Weekly, January 22, 2003).

The first court hearing under Bukreev, which took place on April 9, was observed by Anna Politkovskaya, who commented in Novaya gazeta on April 17 that it “revealed some nasty symptoms that are already painfully familiar.” She wrote that Budanov, sitting in the defender’s dock, “openly threatened with inescapable reprisals” both the Kungaev family and their lawyer, Khamzaev. “In response, Judge Bukreev not only failed to stop the unacceptable behavior of the accused but behaved more like a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten trying to soothe a naughty child; he tried to satisfy Budanov in every way possible and even looked for opportunities to exclude from the proceedings the lawyer whom Budanov so hates, Khamzaev.”

While the Kugayevs and their sympathizers are appealing to international opinion, Budanov seems to be counting on popular pressure within Russia. His new lawyer, Dulimov, announced on April 9 that the former officer of a crack tank regiment had decided to mount a hunger strike to protest the retrial. (More recent media accounts have said nothing about this hunger strike, and as of May 20 it was not clear whether it was still on-going.) Budanov has been in jail continuously since his arrest in March 2003. Even after his court victory in December, the judges declined to release him pending the outcome of the current retrial. The delay is at least in part due to Budanov’s and his lawyers’ own choice of a mental-illness defense with its resulting series of psychiatric examinations. But the image of a Russian officer held in prison for years on end even though he has not been found guilty is sure to resonate among Russians who now rarely learn anything about the war in Chechnya except what the Putin administration wants them to.

In what looked like a sign of confidence that Russian public opinion will back him, Budanov used a non-verbal method to protest his retrial: He demonstratively plugged his ears with cotton and read a book during a brief May 7 court session. Judge Bukreev chose not to penalize him for contempt of court.

Budanov recently changed lawyers. Anatoly Mukhin told journalists last month that he had decided not to continue as the ex-colonel’s defense counsel because of unspecified “technical” problems. On April 10, however, the website reported that Mukhin had said that he would continue to advise his replacement, Dulimov, and even to attend the most important court sessions. It was Dulimov who introduced the latest argument likely to cause further delay: He told Interfax on April 9 that Budanov has been suffering lately from an old grenade wound, shrapnel from which is still in his body.