As has been pointed out in previous issues of this newsletter, the Putin leadership has been keenly interested in improving relations with the Council of Europe, a forty-three-nation body which, significantly, does not include the United States as a member. The visit of the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles of Spain, to Moscow and Chechnya from February 26-March 3 was accorded a very high priority by the Russian government. During his week-long visit, Gil-Robles was granted meetings with a raft of top-level Russian officials: Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; Justice Minister Yury Chaika; Procurator General Vladimir Ustinov; Russian presidential spokesman for issues relating to Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky; Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the international committee of the Russian State Duma; Oleg Mironov, the Russian human rights commissioner; and Lieutenant General Mikhail Kislitsin, the chief military procurator of Russia.
Before visiting Chechnya from February 27-March 1, Gil-Robles met with Vladimir Elagin, the Russian minister responsible for reconstruction in that republic. While in Chechnya, Gil-Robles traveled to Znamenskoe, Gudermes and Djohar (Grozny) accompanied by President Putin’s human rights representative in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, whose offices are located in Znamenskoe. The two visited the once-notorious isolation prison in Chernokozovo (now a model facility). In Chechnya, Gil-Robles also met with Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow chief of administration, and with General Baranov, commander of the Russian Combined Group of Forces.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the trial of Colonel Yury Budanov, charged with a war crime, commenced on February 28, during the period of Gil-Robles’ visit. The Council of Europe envoy commented during his visit that he “ascribes great significance” to that trial (Russian agencies, March 2). A carefully scripted visit by the commissioner had seemingly been meticulously prepared. On the eve of Gil-Robles’ arrival in Moscow, however, two unexpected events occurred which cast a shadow over the visit.
First, there was the shocking discovery, announced on February 24, of a mass dumping ground for bodies, located quite close to the main Russian military base in Khankala, on the outskirts of Djohar. Two days prior to Gil-Robles’ arrival, the pro-Moscow prosecutor of Chechnya, Vsevolod Chernov, had announced that a total of eleven bodies, all of them shot to death, had been found sprawled in tall grass or in empty ruined summer houses at a former dacha complex serving the Communist Party elite (Gazeta.ru, February 26). By March 2, shortly before the envoy’s departure from Russia, that total had risen to forty-eight (Gazeta.ru, March 2). Even that number, it emerged, might not to be the final one: “An official with the Russian administration in Chechnya put the number at about seventy. The official, who asked not to be named, said that the victims were men, women and children of all ages. All the bodies had gunshot wounds and were in various stages of disintegration [while] some were booby trapped with explosives where they lay” (AP, March 2). This grisly discovery threw a spanner into the carefully scripted visit of Gil-Robles.
On February 23, the announcement by award winning war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya (discussed in detail in last week’s issue) that, while visiting a Russian paratroop regiment in the Chechen highlands, she had “seen a real filtration camp, one of the most cruel in Chechnya,” threw a second monkey wrench into the leadership’s carefully laid plans (Gazeta.ru, February 26). A mass grave and a filtration camp represented serious political problems for the Putin leadership and the military high command.
According to Andrei Cherkesov, a spokesman for the Russian human rights organization “Memorial,” who came to Chechnya to investigate the mass grave first-hand, local Chechen inhabitants had discovered the site in mid-February and had begun carrying away the bodies of relatives they had identified. These bodies had clearly not been booby-trapped (Segodnya, March 1). On Saturday, February 24, a resident of Djohar, Sultan Musaev, arrived at the semi-ruined dacha ghost town in search of the body of his missing sixteen-year-old son. He located his son’s remains but was unable to remove the body because it had been booby-trapped. “So he turned to army engineers and to police for assistance” (Gazeta.ru, February 26). This action served to set off alarm bells in the Russian media.
Units of the Russian military and police soon sealed off the entire dacha complex. On February 26, the web site Grani.ru reported: “The press service of the Federal Group [of Forces in Chechnya] announced that the bodies and the approaches to the burial spot were mined. But how, then, in the case of such an explosive graveyard, had the local inhabitants been able to get through [to pick up the remains of their relatives] without having to resort to the help of Russian sappers?” It seemed likely that some of the forty-eight to seventy bodies sprawled around the complex had been booby-trapped, while others had not.
Local Chechen inhabitants maintained from the beginning that the bodies found were those of Chechen civilians who had been swept up in Russian “mopping up operations” and then executed by the Russian forces. The Russian military, for their part, launched their own interpretation of events: the bodies, they said, were those of Chechen rebels who had, mafia-like, fallen out among themselves and had ended up killing one another (Kommersant, February 26). The offices of the military commandant of Chechnya (Major General Ivan Babichev) came up with the most inventive version: “All of those killed–bearded young men–were Slavs…. The murdered Slavs were not prisoners but rather mercenaries fighting for the Chechens who died in battle from the bullets of the federals. The Chechens gathered up their own wounded and dead but… left ‘the heathen’ [that is, the Russian mercenaries] to wandering dogs” (Kommersant, February 27). Presumably, the commandant’s office expected the bodies to be quickly disposed of by the Russian authorities and therefore believed that even such a fantastic story might be able to pass muster.
The pro-Moscow procurator of Chechnya, Vsevolod Chernov, who took charge of the investigation, reported that: “All that we can say is that a majority of the people were shot…. There are no ‘fresh’ corpses among them. The bodies have strongly decomposed, many have been torn apart by dogs and had to be collected in fragments. We could not find any documents identifying who they were” (Kommersant, February 27). As we shall see, this statement contained a number of inaccurate points.
From the beginning, Chernov and other Russian investigators dismissed the version of the local inhabitants–that the bodies were victims of Russian “mopping up operations”–as “not likely.” If Russian soldiers were responsible for the crimes, they argued, then they surely would have tried to get rid of the bodies rather than leaving them unburied. Rather, the investigators hypothesized that “the rebels had executed their hostages” at the dacha site (Kommersant, February 27). Procurator Chernov maintained that “a majority of those killed must have been rebels.” They were wearing gauze bandages on wounds, he said, as well as Turkish-made underwear (AP, March 2).
The available evidence suggested that Chernov and other investigators were intentionally trying to mislead. First, there was the compelling evidence that the three individuals whose bodies were the first to be identified–Said-Rakhmin Musaev, age 16, Odesa Mitaev, age 27, and Magomed Magomedov, age 32–had been arrested on December 15, 2000, during a federal “mopping up operation” conducted at the Fifteenth State Dairy Farm in Grozny District. Nothing had been heard from them since. Their “fresh” bodies showed clearly that they had been executed, almost certainly by the Russian federal forces (Grani.ru, February 26).
Other arguments made by Chernov and other investigators were likewise shown to be dubious. Turkish underwear is ubiquitous in the former Soviet Union and does not indicate that one is a rebel. Investigators working on the dumping site for bodies confided to Kommersant that they had “already established the approximate age of the deceased, from 16 to 35 years old. A majority of them are Chechens though two of them were clearly of a different nationality–they had blond hair…. There are no signs that they belonged to the rebels: the characteristic marks were not found on their shoulders, knees and fingers, by which one can determine that an individual has had to do with a weapon” (Kommersant, February 26).
There were reports in the Russian press that there were women and children among the victims. The body of an executed six-year-old girl was said to have been found (Grani.ru, February 26).
The NGO Human Rights Watch wrote on February 27: “Throughout the past six months, unmarked graves containing the bodies of people who had ‘disappeared’ in the custody of Russian troops were found in several villages, including Starye Atagi, Dzhalka, Gekhi, Duba-Yurt and Mesker-Yurt” (Press Release, February 27).
The March 5 issue of the French newspaper Liberation carried a report by journalist Anne Nivat, who had come to Djohar and apparently managed to visit the morgue where forty-seven bodies discovered at the mass grave site were being housed. She writes: “Four skeletons, whose death goes back at least a year, are assembled in a corner. Forty-three cadavers are those of persons deceased more recently, one or two months ago…. One of them has been scalped. Their members have been sliced off. Certain of them have their hands and feet still tied tightly by ropes. Not one of them appears to have been simply shot to death, contrary to what the pro-Russian procurator of Chechnya, Vsevolod Chernov, officially indicated on Friday [March 2]. All of them bear clear marks of torture. Contradicting the official version, not one of them is wearing a uniform.”
Also on March 5, the online daily Gazeta.ru wrote that, according to the Nazran’ branch of “Memorial,” many more corpses than the reported forty-eight had been discovered at the dacha complex, “but they had immediately been ransomed by the Chechens and therefore did not enter into the official count.”
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s claim to have located a filtration camp on the territory of a Russian paratroop regiment situated on the outskirts of Khatuni, Vedeno District, presented much less of a problem for the Russian leadership than did the mass grave. A high-level delegation traveled to Khatuni, consisting of Procurator Chernov; Nikolai Britvin, deputy plenipotentiary presidential representative to the Southern Federal District; Putin’s human rights representative, Vladimir Kalamanov; and a member of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, Rudnik Dudaev (Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru, March 2). Following the inspection visit–Politkovskaya was not invited to accompany the team–Procurator Chernov dismissed her charges as “inventions.” He added that a criminal case on the charge of slander against the paratroop command might be instituted against her (Gazeta.ru, March 2). Several days earlier, sources in the FSB had stated that “it is not excluded” that a criminal case would be opened against Politkovskaya (Gazeta.ru, February 27).
Two influential Duma deputies came vigorously to Politkovskaya’s defense. The aforementioned Aslambek Aslakhanov declared that, “There was nothing new in Politkovskaya’s claims, as there were many reports by those who at one time or another were held in such facilities. Verification was [complicated] by the military’s refusal to open the garrisons for outside inspection” (Ekho Moskvy, February 27). And Duma deputy Pavel Krashennikov, a former Russian justice minister, reported that “a nongovernmental commission that he chairs had uncovered evidence of brutal treatment of detainees in Chechnya. ‘According to our information, [he said] such places exist, but as soon as such signals are heard and checks begin, they disappear'” (AP, February 26).
On March 3, as he was preparing to leave Moscow for Strasbourg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Gil-Robles, told journalists that during his visit to Chechnya he had found evidence of “uncontrolled actions by members of the federal army and police,” and he called upon the Russian authorities to investigate such crimes “thoroughly and without impunity” (Agence France Presse, March 3).