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Mental Exam Ordered in Murder Trial of Russian Officer - 2002-07-03

A Russian court verdict has been delayed in the case of a high-ranking military officer charged with murdering a Chechen woman. A judge has ordered another psychiatric evaluation of the defendant and a more thorough investigation of the case.

A top human rights official in the Russian government, Oleg Mironov, says the court decision to order new mental checks on Colonel Yuri Budanov was "absolutely right." He told the Itar-Tass news agency that "all court decisions have to be reached in such a manner that people do not doubt the truth of the verdict afterwards."

The judge's move nullified a previous evaluation, which concluded the colonel was temporarily insane when he killed 18-year-old Elza Kungayeva.

The call for more psychiatric tests is the latest twist in a case that started in February of 2001 and had been scheduled to conclude this week. On Monday, the ministry of defense replaced the prosecutor, saying he was suffering from ill health, and appointed a new prosecutor, Vladimir Milovanov, to the case.

While human rights officials praise the latest developments in the case, Mr. Budanov's supporters say they show the Russian officer is being railroaded into jail to show that Russia is serious about prosecuting human rights violations in Chechnya. An official from the military prosecutor's office in Moscow denies his office is being pressured.

Mr. Budanov is charged with abducting and murdering Ms. Kungayeva, and a lesser charge of abusing his office. The previous prosecutor had suggested the Russian officer be convicted only of abuse of office and be freed immediately on amnesty.

The Russian officer admits to killing Ms. Kungayeva, but says he did so in a fit of rage because he thought she was a sniper. The woman's parents and lawyer say Russian soldiers dragged her from her home, raped and killed her.

The Budanov case is at the center of a controversy over whether the Russian government is willing to stop violations by the military against civilians in Chechnya.

Mr. Budanov is the highest-ranking Russian officer to stand trial for crimes against civilians in the war in Chechnya. He could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted of murder.

Although the Russian government strongly denies the charges, Russian soldiers routinely harass, torture, and kill Chechen civilians, according to Diederik Lohman, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow.

"Right now there really is a policy of official tolerance towards these types of crimes. There are very few cases that are being investigated in a serious way, and even fewer go to court," he said.

Mr. Lohman says he is encouraged by this week's developments. But he adds there have been so many twists and turns in this case he is not sure whether this is a sign that Mr. Budanov may be convicted.

Russian soldiers have been fighting Chechen separatists for almost three years in the breakaway region.