MOSCOW (Reuters) - About 200 people protested in Chechnya on Monday over the early release of a Russian officer jailed for murder, in a rare public show of dissent by the region’s pro-Kremlin leadership.
The protesters in the Chechen capital, Grozny, were voicing anger at a decision to grant an early release to Colonel Yuri Budanov, convicted in 2000 of murdering 17-year-old Chechen girl Elza Kungayeva during a tour of duty in Chechnya.
The case has become a symbol of human rights abuses by Russian forces operating in Chechnya. One banner held up by protesters at the rally said: “Budanov’s face is the face of the Russian army.”
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov helped quell a decade-long separatist war and pledges allegiance to the Kremlin, but analysts say the alliance is fragile, with Kadyrov showing growing autonomy from Moscow.
Many in the crowd belonged to political organizations loyal to Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides to support Moscow and became regional leader with the Kremlin’s backing.
“The criminal should stay in prison because a man like Budanov is a public threat,” Sado Meserdiyev, the head of Ramzan, a local public organization, told the rally.
“I am pretty sure that if Budanov was a Chechen he would have served his full term without any question,” said Grozny resident Kheda Satuyeva.
Budanov was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to 10 years in prison three years later. Earlier this month, a local court in southern Russia where Budanov is serving his sentence decided to grant him an early release.
Unless the decision is overruled by a higher court, Budanov will leave prison on January 11, 15 months before completing his sentence.
In 1999 Moscow sent troops to Chechnya to end the region’s short-lived independence won in a first war in 1994-96. The separatist insurgency has largely been quelled, though there are still occasional gunfights.
Analysts say the challenge for the Kremlin now is to ensure that Kadyrov maintains his loyalty, a task made harder because the economic slowdown could reduce the generous subsidies Moscow has been sending to Chechnya.
Rights campaigners have accused Russian troops of arbitrary detentions and tortures during its campaigns in Chechnya.
Russian authorities have arrested and sentenced several officers for crimes against local people, but they have consistently denied they were officially authorized.
Writing by Oleg Shchedrov