The Kremlin's European "alibi"
By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
Samashki, Chechen Republic
The discussion about the building of a forensic laboratory in Chechnya has been continuing for a number of years now without any hint of an early conclusion. The interested parties include Russia, the Council of Europe, the present Chechen government, human rights organizations and international and Russian and Chechen NGOs. With the exception of the Chechen militants, all the parties are agreed on what needs to be done in this sphere.
It became apparent at the outset of the second Chechen war that a forensic laboratory was required. In many of the graves that have been discovered there are bodies that could not be visually identified. In an effort to conceal their crimes, the Russian law enforcement structures engaged in the practice of blowing up bodies with explosives. Without forensic analysis no investigations could be conducted, nor could the dead be buried. The possibility of creating such a laboratory in Chechnya was first raised in the reports of human rights organizations in 2000. From there the debate moved to the Council of Europe, where it became one of the key bargaining chips in talks with with Russia’s representatives.
We recently received a letter from some colleagues in a Spanish human rights organization. Expressing a desire to join in the creation of the laboratory, they were of the opinion that “you don’t need any special investigations to determine the cause of death." The main task, in their view, is to establish the identity of each of the bodies that is found and to return the remains of the deceased to their relatives. In other words: "we’ll help to identify the bodies and bury them, but on the subject of who killed these people, how and why, we won’t breathe a word."
It is no accident that the letter contains references to Alvaro Gil-Robles. As European Commissioner for Human Rights he frequently visited Chechnya and Russia and conducted negotiations there. Partly as a result of his activities, the Chechen question has been scaled down to the level of a humanitarian issue. Under his chairmanship the political problems, the problems of war and peace, and most importantly of all, the investigation of crimes and the prosecution of war criminals, vanished from the agenda of talks with the Russian government. In exchange, the Council of Europe obtained permission to conduct humanitarian operations in Chechnya and set up a laboratory there. The funding for this – 3 million euros – was allocated in 2005. But here, too, the Council has run up against a brick wall...
Once one has given way on something essential, one cannot hope for the other side to comply with agreements in respect of matters that are secondary. The laboratory has not been created. Not even the meetings of the newly appointed European Commissioner Thomas Hammerberg with Putin and Medvedev in late April last year were able to break the deadlock. After the routine “yeses” and “of courses” there was no response from Russia’s Ministry of Health on the advisability of building a “laboratory for the exhumation and identification of dead civilians”. The reason for the refusal was a lack of skilled manpower, and of financial and material resources.
If anyone believes that the problem is one of money, they are deeply mistaken. This is a purely political matter. Imagine that the remains of a man are found who upon forensic examination turns out to be an abducted resident of the republic, with a specific name, address and stolen life. At once the question arises: who abducted him?
In the majority of cases, it was representatives of the federal structures. Sometimes observers succeeded in establishing the registration numbers of the armoured vehicles in which the people were taken away and the names of the military units involved. On occasion it was even possible for the Russian servicemen themselves to be identified. But what happened thereafter was a total mystery. People disappeared, or rather went into limbo. The “exposed” servicemen usually argued that the captured man had been released, and the fact that he had failed to return home was not their business. Go and see for yourself, they would say. But there was no body, and even if there were, it would have been impossible to know its identity. Frequently, it had been blown to little pieces.
In Chechnya, several thousand people have gone missing in this way. Hundreds and thousands of them are still lying in open graves, and many have been put there without being identified. The laboratory, if it is eventually set up, will have its work cut out for it. But the analysis of human remains will reveal what the Russian authorities have tried to hide for all these years: the deliberate, planned and systematic nature of the atrocities that were committed. This is more than just the revelation of a crime – it is a bridge from the rank-and-file perpetrators of the atrocities to their commanders, to the commanders of the commanders, and all the way up to the highest political and military leaders of the Russian state.
That is the real reason for the federal government’s reluctance to allow the laboratory’s creation. And it is also the rationale behind the idea that the goals and objectives of the post mortem examinations should be achieved in a limited and truncated version. In other words, the lab should turn a blind eye to the causes of death and concern itself solely with the identification and return of the remains of deceased relatives. Unobtrusively, the Europeans are being invited to participate in the concealment of crimes.
It may seem strange, but in the covert battles that have unfolded the position of today's Chechen authorities is much more clear – they are for a full forensic examination. That can be easily explained. Because the status of its legitimacy is not always obvious, the republic’s leadership is sometimes forced to reckon with the sentiments of Chechen public opinion. As already mentioned, most of the extrajudicial killings are the work of the federals. And so for now the local authorities support the idea – that way they can avoid compromising themselves and can earn political points on the crimes that have been committed by "outsiders". For now – but what if they turn against it?
(Translation by DM)