The Yuri Budanov case
By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
Like other members of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, I was involved in the preparation of the trial of Yuri Budanov. Initially we helped Visa Kungayev, the father of the murdered girl, to leave the village of Tangi-Chu together with his wife and children, and then hired a Chechen lawyer, who was unfortunately unable to cope with his work. In the end, we turned to the lawyer Abdulla Khamzayev. It was solely thanks to his energy, persistence and knowledge of law that the case was brought to its logical conclusion: the rapist and murderer in the uniform of a Russian colonel was behind bars.
Right to the end, official representatives of the Russian state attempted to protect the “honour” of the officer whom by this time they had elevated to the status of hero. The girl he had murdered was said to have been a “sniper”, the rape disappeared from the indictment and became an act of necrophilia for which some foolish soldiers were responsible, while he himself was miraculously transformed into an avenger who had “gone off the rails” out of grief for his dead regimental comrades.
Yuri Budanov would have escaped responsibility, had it not been for several coincidences.
In the first place, the crime was committed on the very same day that the results of nationwide elections finally confirmed Vladimir Putin as the Kremlin’s ruler. The Russian authorities had already made great efforts to try to show the world that the Chechens played an active part in bringing this about, thought there was still a war going on.
For example, the biggest military confrontation since the battle of Grozny – in the village of Komsomolskoye, located just seven or eight kilometre from Tangi-Chu – had only just ended. And in the press and on television there was now talk of precinct commissions and polling stations which had ostensibly been set up in Chechen towns and villages. This was all garbage, of course.
When publicized by human rights defenders and then given mass coverage by the Western media, Yuri Budanov’s “act of heroism” badly disfigured the picture of “universal satisfaction among the Chechens and their gratitude to the liberating forces”. Not only did it show up the true nature of the “elections” in the republic, and the war which until then had been carefully packaged as “counterterrorist operation” – it also cast a revealing light on the Russian “fighters against terror”, who in addition to having few scruples about killing and looting were also prepared to commit sexual violence.
If their reputation was to be saved, reaction had to be swift. There was nothing for it – the offending officer had to be arrested. Which is what happened.
In the second place, Yuri Budanov had largely himself to blame for the fact that he was behind bars. I am not referring to his crime. Russian servicemen have also evaded responsibility for large-scale atrocities. For example, no one has ever been punished for the massacres in Alkhan-Yurt (November-December 1999), Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district (January-February 2000), Novye Aldy (February 2000), and so on, even though the units that were active in those places and the names of their commanders are no secret. They are a “secret” perhaps only for the Russian prosecutor's office, which to all requests by human rights defenders replies that “it is not considered possible to establish the supposed identity of persons allegedly involved in the commission of this crime.”
The authorities, including the military, have successfully protected any murderer and rapist if he murdered and raped when murder and rape were permitted. But if no direct order was given, the individuals guilty of “spontaneous action” could sometimes end up behind bars. As was the case with Sergey Sukhanov and Dmitry Magonov who in mid-December 2000 brutally massacred the Ismailov family of Alkhan-Kala.
But even against this backdrop, the story of the case’s principal “hero” looks very foolish. After human rights defenders made the world aware of the abduction of the girl from Tangi-Chu, the commander of the 58th Army, General Valery Gerasimov, arrived in order to put things right in the regiment’s favour. Yuri Budanov began to threaten him, apparently even waving a pistol under his nose, something that is unforgivable in the Russian army. The Colonel was disarmed and detained. And the fate of a Chechen girl was not the cause.
I recall that in the initial phase of the battle of Komsomolskoye the Russian army units that were under the overall command of the above-mentioned general kept hundreds of such Chechen girls in front of them as human shields. And not only girls, of course, but also the elderly, children, and of course men, too. During that time there naturally came to be many dead and wounded, and a newborn child was killed. Once again, only after this became known in the West were the villagers released from the firing area between the fighters in the village and the Russian troops dug in on the outskirts...
And the third factor which could not fail to have an effect (for Russian patriots, even a tragic one) on the fate of Yuri Budanov was the process known as the “Chechenization of the conflict”. The men who had been brought to power in the leadership of the republic needed at least some form of legitimacy. And public complaints directed against Budanov, whose case was definitively lost, were the most effective and safest way to gain popularity. Elza Kungayeva’s killer simply became a tool that was used in order to build up the authority of the new government which had just been formed.
The fact that in this connection there was a certain deal between the federal centre and the local appointees is borne out, I think, by the following: neither at the time nor subsequently did the republic’s authorities try to bring to justice any of the criminals who were guilty of far more serious crimes than Budanov. The criminals who were really responsible for large-scale atrocities against the civilian population – the generals in command of groups of forces, the heads of the special services who organized terror against the entire Chechen population, and, accordingly, the man who stood above them all.
On the contrary, the republic now has streets named after these people, though I do not imagine that their immortality will last for very long...
Usam Baysayev is an associate of the Ingushetian office of the “Memorial” Human Rights Centre.
The photograph is borrowed from the website of Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte.
(Translation by DM)