Chechens protest pardon plea

SUN JOURNAL

March: Thousands of demonstrators hit the streets of the capital after learning a Russian army colonel might escape further punishment for killing a Chechen girl.

September 22, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Amid rising ethnic tensions in the north Caucasus, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Grozny, the Chechan capital, yesterday to protest the proposed pardon of a Russian army colonel who murdered a teenage Chechen girl.

Students and teachers from Chechen State University and other campuses marched and held signs demanding that Col. Yuri Budanov serve the 10-year jail term handed down by a court last year.

Hundreds of police surrounded the demonstrators in Grozny's war-ravaged center, Russian television showed, but made no effort to interfere.

"Budanov-Basayev - Both are Murderers," one sign read, referring to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who claimed responsibility last week for a series of attacks that have killed more than 450 Russian civilians in the past month, including schoolchildren in the southern Russian city of Beslan. "Budanov's Release is Russia's Shame," another poster said.

Hours later, the Interfax news service, citing authorities, reported that Budanov had withdrawn his request for a pardon, Authorities offered no explanation for his sudden reversal.

The governor of the Ulyanovsk region, where Budanov is serving his prison term, endorsed the findings of a regional commission Monday and urged President Vladimir V. Putin to pardon the disgraced officer. Several members of Putin's United Russia party also petitioned for Budanov's early release.

Human rights advocates said a pardon would aggravate tensions throughout the north Caucasus, which many fear is headed for a Balkans-style ethnic war after the tragedy in Beslan.

Chechens feared releasing Budanov would encourage abuses by Russian soldiers in Chechnya, adding that it would prove the claim of rebels that no Chechen can expect justice from Russia. Human rights groups charge that Chechen civilians are routinely kidnapped and killed by Russian forces.

"Everybody must be equal before the law," Zarima, one of yesterday's protestors - who would give only her first name - said in a telephone interview. "If a similar crime was committed by a militant, he would have been sentenced to at least 20 years of imprisonment."

Budanov was the first high-ranking Russian officer convicted of a crime against a Chechen civilian in the current war. He admitted killing 18-year-old Elza Kungaeva in March 2000 but claimed he did so in a fit of rage because he suspected she was a sniper.

Witnesses said Budanov got drunk to celebrate his daughter's birthday, had his soldiers drag Kungaeva from her family's home and cornered her in his quarters before beating her to death.

Medical evidence showed Kungaeva was raped. But rape charges against Budanov were dropped after one of his soldiers claimed to have had sex with her corpse.

Vissa Kungaev, the father of the slain girl, was outraged when he heard of the proposal to free Budanov. "To my mind, Budanov is exactly the same as the terrorists who killed children in Beslan," he said yesterday, in a telephone interview. "I know what it means to lose a child. We were in the same situation as the families there."

Kungaev recently emigrated to Norway with his wife and family. He told friends he feared that his son, Kavazhi, now 19, would otherwise decide to seek revenge for his sister's murder.

The girl's family watched yesterday's protests on television. "My wife, Rosa, is sitting here and crying," Kungaev said. "She told me, `The Chechen people have not forgotten us.'"

Some pro-Kremlin officials in Chechnya reacted angrily to calls for a pardon. Chechnya's deputy prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whose father President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated by guerrillas in May, told Interfax, "The Ulyanovsk commission's decision is like spitting on the soul of the long-suffering Chechen people."

While talk of a pardon outraged Chechens, many Russians called for Budanov's release. "Of course, it's outrageous, but very many people support Budanov," said Andrei Mironov, a human rights activist. "When it comes to the Chechens, they seem to want to say, `Kill them all, rape them all.'"

Ulyanovsk Gov. Vladimir Shamanov, Budanov's former military commander who recommended the pardon, said in the past that the wives and children of Chechen fighters should be executed.

Putin's representative for Southern Russia told state-run television on Sunday that Putin might ratify the pardon, comparing it to amnesties offered for rebels who offered to lay down their arms. But the Kremlin doesn't seem eager to decide this case.

Yesterday, Russia's chief prosecutor sent the pardon request back to Shamanov for reconsideration, pointing to "procedural errors" by the regional commission that made the recommendation.

Deciding the issue would have been politically costly for Putin. If he had rejected the pardon, he would have risked angering many Russians - at a time when his approval ratings are plummeting. Granting the pardon could have generated sympathy for Chechen separatists, especially in the United States and Europe, where many are beginning to question Russia's commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

"Putin said after Beslan that everybody who incites hate crimes among different ethnic groups would be considered to have the same responsibility as those who commit terrorist acts," said Aleksandr Petrov, of Human Rights Watch's Moscow Bureau. "That was the right signal."

Proposing to pardon Budanov, Petrov said, was the wrong signal. He said it could have incited precisely the kind of ethnic violence that Putin was seeking to avoid.

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