Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Russian Officer Protests Murder Retrial

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) -- The Russian officer charged with murdering a young Chechen woman plugged his ears with cotton balls and read a book in court on Wednesday to protest his retrial.

Col. Yuri Budanov has admitted killing 18-year-old Heda Kungayeva, but says he suspected her of being a rebel sniper and acted in a fit of rage.

Kungayeva's family said she was dragged from her home, raped and murdered during a drunken rampage by soldiers in March 2000.

The case is seen as a bellwether for Russia's willingness to crack down on military abuses in Chechnya, but now in its third year, it has also turned into an example of the convoluted, inefficient Russian legal system.

Budanov's first trial ended in December with a ruling that the officer was temporarily insane and therefore not criminally responsible. The ruling was based on examinations of Budanov's mental health that were widely contradictory.

Russia's Supreme Court overturned that decision in February and ordered a new trial. The court, in turn, has ordered yet another mental examination of the officer.

"I know what's going to happen in this trial," said Budanov, who has repeatedly protested his prolonged prosecution. "I will plug my ears with cotton balls and close my eyes."

Judge Vladimir Bukreyev said Budanov's decision to plug his ears "reveals a factor of disrespect toward the court." But he said the court can't simply remove Budanov from the session because "without him the court would not be able to fairly consider his case."

"Budanov has the right not to answer the questions of the court and to sit and read a book," Bukreyev said.

During Wednesday's session, the court questioned two Chechen women who testified that they had seen Budanov in the village of Tangi-Chu, where Kungayeva was dragged from her home, on days before the alleged crime. Budanov had previously testified that he had never been to the village before.

It was not immediately clear what affect the testimony would have on Budanov's case. Budanov's lawyers are again seeking a finding of temporary insanity because it could lead to their client's freedom or, at the very least, a lighter sentence.

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