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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Budanov Cleared of Murder Charge

A regional military court has ruled that Colonel Yury Budanov, the highest ranking Russian officer to be charged with abuses against civilians in Chechnya, cannot be held accountable for the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen woman because he was temporarily insane at the time of the killing.

In compliance with a request by defense lawyers, the court ordered that Budanov undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment. It was not clear whether the Dec. 31 ruling set a time period for his institutionalization.

The case has been perceived as a barometer of Moscow's willingness to crack down on military abuses against civilians in Chechnya, which international aid organizations and rights groups have documented as commonplace. Human Rights Watch condemned the acquittal, saying it "shows Russia's resolve to shield its military from accountability for atrocities" in Chechnya.

Lawyers for the family of Elza Kungayeva -- whom Budanov, by his own admission, strangled in March 2000 after abducting her from her family home -- said Wednesday that they would call for a retrial with a new judge, Interfax said.

"The decision handed down by Judge Viktor Kostin ... is not adequate in light of the crime," lawyer Abdulla Khamzayev was quoted as saying earlier.

Khamzayev said the Supreme Court's military collegium would have a month to examine the request, which he planned to submit Friday, and Budanov would have to remain behind bars throughout that time.

A second appeal, from the Kungayev family, was filed Wednesday, Khamzayev told Interfax.

Prosecutors had asked the court in Rostov-on-Don to give Budanov -- who testified that he had believed Kungayeva to be a rebel sniper -- a 12-year prison sentence and to strip him of his military rank and honors.

The psychiatric evaluation cited by the court in its decision was the last of four and the second one conducted by Moscow's Serbsky Center for Forensic Psychiatry. The first two evaluations had declared Budanov sane.

Human rights activists and Kungayev family lawyers have argued that the experts at the Serbsky Center -- once a mainstay of the Soviet government's unwritten punitive psychiatry policy -- were under political pressure to declare Budanov temporarily insane. Kostin denied the accusation as groundless.

The timing of the controversial ruling suggests the court had hoped to keep the news as low-profile as possible. The decision was handed down on New Year's Eve, when media coverage was sure to be at a minimum as the country shut down for a week of winter holidays.

The verdict was criticized by Chechen officials, including the republic's commissioner for human rights, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, and deputy administration head Tauz Dzhabrailov.

Political analyst Sergei Markov said the ruling reinforced the "unofficial ideology" of the Chechnya war, which sees the conflict as a means of restoring Russia's honor and easily allows for abuses, "especially when they are committed by people unquestionably devoted to Russia -- like Budanov."

Several experts said the temporary insanity ruling also does more harm than good for the military. "If a man can command a regiment in such a condition, that's a scandal for the entire Russian army," Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika think tank, told Interfax.