Russia's only convicted war criminal, former army Col. Yury Budanov, was fatally shot in downtown Moscow Friday in what police called a contract killing, possibly motivated by vengeance on the part of Chechens or a "provocation" aiming to stir up ethnic strife in Moscow.
The former artillery officer, who had asked for police protection after receiving threats but had been refused, was shot several times by a gunman who escaped by car with an accomplice, police said.
Most Russians appear to have forgotten about Budanov, whose case caused a bitter split in Russian society after he was arrested a decade ago and charged with kidnapping, raping, and murdering an 18-year-old Chechen girl, Elza Kungayeva, near the Chechen village of Tangi-Chu, where he was stationed during the second Chechen war.
His trial, which infuriated even pro-Moscow Chechens, saw the withdrawal of rape charges by the prosecution and included testimony by top Russian generals who insisted Budanov was an "honorable Russian officer."
"This case had a huge impact on Russian society, because it was the first time a high-ranking Russian officer was put on trial for a very odious crime," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"Before that the Russian military had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted in Chechnya, and human rights considerations didn't matter. His arrest was a signal that might be changing, and so the military brass tried to derail the trial," he says.
Public opinion polls at the time showed that over half of Russians believed Budanov was innocent and should be released and restored to his former military rank. The trial ended with Budanov being found "not guilty" by reason of temporary insanity, a verdict that was subsequently overturned by Russia's Supreme Court.
His second trial ended in a 10-year prison sentence, of which he served six years before being released on parole in 2009.
"Budanov's punishment was not tough enough, and that may have given rise to what has happened to him now," says Tatiana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, Russia's largest grassroots human rights watchdog. "His prison sentence was light, and he was given an easy job in jail, working as a supply manager, until he was granted early release."
Experts say that while Budanov might have slipped from Russians' collective memory, Chechens never forgot nor forgave what they saw as a vicious crime that was treated too lightly by Russian justice.
"Budanov himself never showed any remorse, and acted as though he was a victim of circumstances," says Mr. Makarkin. "Chechens were deeply offended, and someone probably would have come hunting him even if his sentence hadn't been so mild."
But Ms. Kungayeva's father, speaking to Russian media from Norway, where the family has lived in exile for several years, denied that revenge was a likely motive for Budanov's assassination.
"This is not connected to the murder of my daughter," Visa Kungayev was quoted as saying by the official RIA-Novosti agency. "There is no need to avenge my daughter."
Another theory suggests that Russian nationalists, who staged riots in Moscow last winter, might have carried out Budanov's murder in hopes of triggering fresh ethnic unrest.
"Given the prominence of Budanov it cannot be excluded that the murder was carried out with the aim of creating a provocation," the police investigative committee said in a statement Friday. "Nevertheless it is premature to point to ethnic groups," it added.
Some observers say that whatever the truth about Budanov's fate, it is part of an expanding pattern of violence introduced into Russian society by two bloody wars in the past two decades to subdue rebellious Chechnya.
"The Chechen wars deeply brutalized our society and led to a cult of force as the solution to all problems," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog.
"A whole generation of Russian police passed through Chechnya, where they learned to use torture and violence and then applied these lessons to the whole country," she says. "The consequences of these wars can be seen in the ethnic hatreds shaking our cities, particularly toward people from the north Caucasus."
"Some people still see Budanov as a hero, but he is just a symbol of the degradation of our military and the corruption of our country that the Chechen wars caused," she says.