The guilty verdict pronounced last week on Yury Budanov is a gift to Akhmad Kadyrov’s election campaign–but a threat to Vladimir Putin’s. Human rights advocates are welcoming the verdict as a rare exception to the pattern in which atrocities by Russian soldiers against Chechens usually go unpunished. But they are also warning already about the possibility that the Russian judicial system will find some pretext to soften or overturn the verdict sometime after Chechnya’s Election Day and before Russia’s.
On July 27 the military court for the northern Caucasus okrug, based in Rostov on the Don, gave a ten year prison sentence to the former tank commander who kidnapped and murdered a Chechen girl three years ago (see Chechnya Weekly, May 22). From that term will be subtracted the three years that he has already spent in jail since his arrest. The court also stripped Budanov of his rank as a colonel in the Russian army and of a medal for heroism. In contrast to its controversial ruling of December 31, the court this time rejected an attempt by Budanov’s lawyers to have him declared not guilty by reason of insanity.
While the Russian procuracy pronounced itself satisfied with the verdict, Budanov’s lawyer, Aleksei Dulimov, said that the court “had failed to take into account that he [Budanov] acted as he did because of extreme necessity” and that he would appeal the ruling. Also promising to appeal was Abdul Khamzaev, the lawyer for the family of the murdered Chechen girl. He called the sentence too mild for such serious crimes.
Anna Politkovskaya commented in Novaya gazeta that, even though the verdict was an “election-campaign maneuver,” the court had shown “great courage by today’s standards.” The judges, she wrote, “have shown to all in Chechnya that they now may have hope–however slight–that the soldiers who insult and assault them will get what they deserve. That is no small thing.”
Writing for the website Polit.ru on July 26, Anton Nikolaev took a somewhat more cynical view: “For almost four years…the question about truth and justice has been nudged aside. The Budanov case has stopped being a search for truth, but instead has become an indicator of the country’s social and political zigzags.” He suggested that “it is no accident that this sentence has been pronounced precisely at this moment, when less than three months remain before Chechnya’s presidential elections.” Olga Allenova, reporting from Rostov on the Don, noted in her July 26 article for Kommersant that local journalists had told her that, over the last few months, the chief judge “would run to the telephone” during breaks in the court sessions, “and only after that would emerge with a prepared decision.”
Politkovskaya wrote that, according to her newspaper’s sources, Kadyrov had actively lobbied the Kremlin behind the scenes for the prison sentence. Kadyrov himself hailed the court’s ruling on July 26, telling Interfax that it would have “enormous social and political significance for the entire country.”
The most important thing to monitor now, wrote Politkovskaya, is whether Budanov will in fact serve a genuine sentence like other convicted prisoners, “without privileges or official sponsors”–or whether he merely will be released within a few months, as she said “many pessimists” are now predicting. (Budanov’s deputy, Ivan Fedorov, found guilty on a lesser charge and sentenced to a three-year term, has already been freed under an amnesty proclaimed for the anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.)
On July 29 Aleksandr Minkin expressed regret in the pages of the popular tabloid “Moskovsky komsomolets” that more than 90 percent of participants in an unscientific call-in poll had taken the position that Budanov should have been found innocent. He reminded his readers that the ex-colonel’s prison sentence might be “useful to us all…who knows how many hundreds of suicide bombers would have appeared if Budanov had been exonerated? After all, it is the complete impossibility of securing justice by any other means that provokes them to their deadly attacks.”