For the relatives and loved ones of more than 2,400 missing Russian soldiers and Chechens, the anguish of war in Chechnya is not over. A study released in January by Memorial indicated that 703 Russian soldiers and officers were missing or being held by the Chechen side.13 As of mid-October, a list of the missing compiled by the nongovernmental organization included 1,432 residents of Chechnya.14 The true number of missing residents may be much higher, since the list is based not on a comprehensive survey of the population but rather on the reports of relatives and loved ones who sought out and the Search Committee of the United Commission. As many as one-third of those residents of Chechnya and an unknown number of Russian soldiers reported missing may in fact be dead. Since March 1995, Victims of War has participated in the exhumation of 926 bodies from mass graves and successfully learned the identities of 426 of themafter forensic examinations were performed in the Russian city of Rostov. More unidentified bodies lay in approximately eighty mass graves within Chechnya,15 but lack of resources and, according to Mr. Khamidov, the chair of Victims of War, lack of will on the Russian side have thus far prevented exhumations from taking place.16 Chechnya Procurator Khavazh Serbiyev reported that he expected corpses to be found during the process of road repair and noted that new corpses continually turned up.17 In addition, district procuracies throughout Chechnya are searching for about 200 missing persons, many of whom also figure on the list. Mass graves containing filtration camp victims are believed to exist elsewhere in Russia.18 According to, Russian officials in locations where mass graves are thought to exist, in defiance of the October 3, 1996 Chernomyrdin-Yandarbiyev agreement, have hindered the exhumations by claiming they have no bodies or by demanding bribes.19
Detentions by Russian Forces
A partial analysis, by Victims of War, of 264 of the list of 1,432 reported missing found that, as of October 30, 1996, at least 139 were still being forcibly detained by the Russian side. By crude extrapolation, this might suggest that almost half of those Chechens who are missing are alive and being forcibly detained either on Russian military bases or in Russian lock-ups, pre-trial facilities, or post-conviction prisons. It is entirely unclear, however, how many of these men are in fact alive. Major V. Izmailov, who works for the United Commission's search group, suggested that the debate surrounding an "all-for-all" exchange was absurd because the Chechen men on the list of the missing were "most likely, not among the living," without clarifying whether they had in fact been killed on the battlefield, were shot upon capture, or died in detention.20 Despite the obligation by both sides to release all such individuals, under the Khasavyurt and subsequent agreements and in Protocol II additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, exchanges in fact occur painfully slowly (see below), and relatives frequently do not know that their loved one has been detained, rather than killed, until after he is released. In addition, Russian authorities have repeatedly presented obstacles to ICRC access to persons detained within the criminal justice system in connection with the conflict by insisting that the ICRC must first get the permission of the presiding judge.
Of a Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs list of 2,000 Chechens in detention in Russia, only nine were cases of individuals sentenced for crimes related to the war and were on the list;21 an unknown number of forcibly detained Chechens may well be lost in the Russian criminal justice system, having been seized and then taken for "filtering" outside Chechnya to Mozdok (in North Ossetia), Piatigorsk (in Stavropol district or krai) or Stavropol city. They may have beentried and sentenced by a court for their involvement in the war and may be currently serving their prison terms somewhere in Russia22 without benefit of counsel and the ability to contact their relatives.23
Not all Chechens detained for "filtering" figured in official records because they were illegally detained, which further complicates exchanges and the search for the missing. In March, for example, Russian forces illegally detained three Chechens at the Khankala military base for thirteen days, including Ramzan Akhmedov, for questioning and then exchanged them for five Russian servicemen. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes the detention was illegal because at the time, the PAP-I filtration camp was still operating, and presumably Chechens suspected of rebel activities should have been brought there for questioning. Even more telling was the conduct of Russian forces who participated in the exchange. According to Sultan Kacheyev, the Chechen field commander who sought their exchange, "We got through to [commander of Russian forces in Chechnya] Tikhomirov, and they told us officially, they came to us in two APCs, showed us [our guys'] pictures, and said that if we started to look for other channels [to do the exchange] then we'll make it so you won't find them. What other channels? Those that are [over their heads]. There's the prisoner of war commission, we could have gone through them."24 Because an official exchange commission might have established that the three Chechens had been illegally detained, the commander in charge of Khankala could have been held criminally responsible.25
Some of the missing were initially detained by Russian forces as late as August, shortly before the cease-fire agreement was reached. Aslambek Karmayev, for example, reported to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that on August 24, 1996, a group of Russian soldiers detained his father, sixty-seven-year-old Alexei, in the courtyard of his neighbors' home in Grozny. Aleksei Karmayev had previously complained of looting to the headquarters of the nearby 276th Motorized Regiment and sought to have his property returned to him. Mr. Karmayev's television was returned to him on the morning of August 24, and in the evening, 26 Aslambek Karmayev told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki:
It was around [6:00 p.m.]. There were eight servicemen from the 276th Motorized Division . . .they took my father away from the courtyard of building 28 on Kommunistichskaya Street. My neighbor who lives in that building told me. They were looking after [my father]. The neighbors saw it happen . . .they were sitting on the bench with other elderly people. There was a lot of looting here on the 20th, 21st, and 22nd [of August], . . and he was trying to stop it. [He would go to the headquarters] of the 276th's headquarters on Kabardinskii Street, in the macaroni factory.
Oleg Skorikov, a retired man, was sitting in the courtyard the day Aslambek Karmayev was taken away. He told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki:
It was evening. I had got up and was walking to the door of my building, when I saw eight [soldiers]. They were walking right up to the bench, they went right up to him and said, "Come on, let's step aside." And he said, "What for? Tell me what it is you want." He wouldn't go with them. They insisted, and . . . he still didn't want to. Then they took him from both sides, under his arms. He showed them his identification as an invalid, but they took him anyway and brought him right to the gates of our building. . . They didn't say who they were. They just walked right up to him.27
Larisa Petrovna, another eyewitness, tried to talk the soldiers into releasing Aslambek Karmayev:
They were all Russian [soldiers]. When Karmayev said that he would talk only to the commander, one of them, a man wearing glasses, said, "I'm the commander. Let's go. What's the matter with you, you can't obey an order?" Karmayev said, "I'm an invalid." And [the man wearing glasses] said, "Don't pull that with us." I also started to say, "What are you taking him away for? I thought they wanted money . . . and then said, "Guys, maybe it's money you need, maybe we can pay you?" But he said, "No, we don't need any money." 28
A third eyewitness, Nina Dmitrievna Gabisova, identified the "commander" as having thick-lensed glasses and stated that he was wearing a green kerchief. She confirmed the account provided by other eyewitnesses:
He said hello to us and went up to Aleksei and said, " Papa, we need to talk to you." He said, "Let's talk." "No not here. Let's step aside." Karmayev said, "Let's talk here. I don't want to talk to you. We have nothing to talk about." That's what he said. And [the soldier] said, "Come on, let's step aside." We didn't know who they were. The [other soldiers] were standing near the doorway with their guns. As the events were unfolding, Mrs. Gabisova called a neighbor to contact the commander of the 276th Regiment, but by the time the neighbors had gotten through, by radio, to the base, Aleksei Karmayev was gone.29
Detentions by Chechen Forces
As of mid-January 1997, the Chechen side held prisoner between 700 and 1,000 Russian soldiers and officers.30 According to Memorial, the only centralized camp for Russian prisoners, created in January 1996, in Staryi Achkoi, was evacuated when the village came under Russian bombardment and shifted location seventeen times. Conditions were quite rough, many prisoners were beaten, and approximately one-third of the camp's 150 inmates -many of whom were civilians- did not survive through the end of the war.31 Especially in the latter phases of the war, however, Russian prisoners were not held in a centralized location; rather, they were and remain scattered among field commanders and private families and beyond the control of central Chechen authorities. General Aslan Maskhadov, then head of Chechen forces and currently the front-running candidate for the Chechnya presidency, told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, "Wegave orders to all commanders to provide all information about prisoners, and they produced this information."32 However, the lack of a centralized list of, and a centralized holding place for, Russian prisoners in Chechen detention, creates havoc for establishing the true number of Russian missing and for their exchange. General Maskhadov also acknowledged that Chechen families may be holding prisoners in their homes. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki received an alarming first-hand report of a family that had "privately" seized and was holding a Russian soldier as an "insurance policy" until their relative was returned by the enemy side.33 This illegal practice is believed to be widespread in Chechnya. Both private families and commanders move Russian soldiers from one place to another, which further complicates the process of finding missing soldiers. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interviewed the mother of one such soldier, K.O. (born 1979), whom Chechen fighters had captured in Urus-Martan in December 1995 and then transferred to another unit in Argun in February 1996.
He was a conscript, he is from a unit from Krasnodarski krai. I found out that he was captured alive together with at least three others. One of them was exchanged and two were handed over by authorities in the presence of the press at the end of February 1996. The released soldiers said that K. was executed. I was in the kommandatura where the handover took place and talked to the commander, Duka Makhayev [now dead], who vowed to me that K. was not executed. His deputy, Maj. Lecho Beksultanbayev, said K. was just handed over to a group [of fighters] near Argun, although it was not made clear which one.34
Finally, the many mass graves in Chechnya are likely to contain the bodies of Russian soldiers.35 Soldiers' mothers on a desperate search to find their sons literally lived at the Khankala military base and routinely attend exhumations.36 One such mother told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that in ten months, only ten mothers had found their sons alive.
In the Khasavyurt agreements, both sides specifically agreed to an "all for all" exchange of prisoners to be carried out at the end of the war. Despite this commitment, many persons remain forcibly detained and the process of exchange, now under the authority of the United Commission, has proceded haltingly because of obstruction by both parties. Neither side has a centralized list of detainees and both sides claim not to be holding any more detainees. Instead, an unacceptable "barter" for individuals has resulted, with both sides continuing to take hostages to increase their leverage.
International law recognizes the importance of bringing to an end the detention of persons captured during a conflict once that conflict ends. Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which deals with non-international conflicts, in Article 6(5) instructs "the authorities in power . . . to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict." The State Duma, as well as other institutions of the Russian government, has not applied Article 6(5) because it does not considerthe war in Chechnya to be a non-international armed conflict to which the Geneva Conventions would apply.37 If the Russian government and Duma had applied international law, an amnesty would have been worded accordingly so as to release those who had taken part in rebel activities, those who had gone AWOL, and the like, while at the same time excluding, among others, those who had committed serious violations of Protocol II and article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions. However, as a result of failing to apply international law and refusing to adopt an amnesty into national law, no post-war amnesty is in place.
Given the absence of a mutual commitment to an "all for all" exchange, the failure by the Russian Duma to an amnesty presents an especially serious obstacle to ending the detention for those still held. Many have called for such an amnesty, including the families of Russian soldiers believed still to be held by the authorities of Chechnya, because they believe that their sons will never be released by the Chechens unless the Russians also agree to release those Chechens still in detention.
The State Duma has drafted an amnesty. Unfortunately, however, it applies only to Russian servicemen and therefore does nothing to facilitate the exchange of those still detained or the resolution of their cases. Indeed, the draft is nearly identical to amnesties granted in honor of major public holidays, such as World War II Victory Day, and provides for the release from custody of men over the age of sixty, women with children under eighteen, minors who are serving sentences of three years or less, and reduces prison terms for certain categories of prisoners. No mention is made of the war in Chechnya or the Geneva Conventions, and only article 1(a) mentions servicemen, granting amnesty to those "who have served in the army or who have served in action to defend the Motherland."
Excluded from the amnesty are those convicted under forty-two articles of the Russian criminal code, including treason, espionage, terrorism, pre-meditated murder or bodily harm, rape, and more significantly, malicious "hooliganism," illegal possession of weapons, and banditry. Just as it is unclear how many Chechens detained at filtration points or taken prisoner remain in the criminal justice system strictly for their participation or alleged participation in rebel activities, the Russian government has failed to specify under which articles they were tried and convicted, although in all likelihood these were murder, banditry and illegal possession of weapons. The amnesty as currently written deprives Russian criminal justice officials of the legal grounds upon which to release those Chechens currently held in custody for their participation or alleged participation in the fighting.
13 For a list of Russian servicemen missing and held prisoner and for an excellent analysis of the problem see Memorial, The Unknown Soldier.
14 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Grozny, October 17, 1996. Sixteen of these are children. Russian state forensic medical teams were supposed to send computer programs to Grozny to help identify bodies in mass graves, but as of this writing has not received these programs. According to Russian press reports, which cited no sources, in January 1,300 Chechens and 1,000 Russians remained missing.
15 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview with Khussein Khamidov, Grozny, October 17, 1996.
16 Russian forensic teams in Rostov identified the bodies.
17 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview with Khavazh Serbiyev, Grozny, October 17, 1996.
18 Filtration camps were detention centers run by Russian forces ostensibly to weed out Chechen rebels and to gain information rebel activities. Russian forces were notorious for subjecting filtration camp inmates to repeated beatings and torture. See Memorial Human Rights Center, Conditions in Detention.
19 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview with Khussein Khamidov, Grozny, October 17, 1996. Chernormyrdin-Yandarbiev Agreement elaborated on the August 31, 1996 Khasavyurt agreements.
20 Interview with Major Izmailov on Press Club, a Russian Public Television (ORT) program, broadcast January 22, 1997
21 According to a list of 2,000 Chechens in detention that the Russian side gave Victims of War on October 16, 1996.
22 See Masha Gessen, "Mothers in Arms," The New Republic, Washington D.C. September 16 & 23, 1996, pp. 20-21.
23 The Chechen side is deeply suspicious of the list of 2,000 ethnic Chechens in prison provided by the Russian government. This is due in part to half-baked efforts by the Russian Corrections Department to cooperate in finding those on Mr. Khamidov's list of more than 1,300 missing after the June 1996 cease-fire. The Corrections Department responded that forty such individuals had been in detention but were released, although they all had been both detained and released before 1993, obviously having had nothing to do with the war. No information whatsoever had been proffered on the current whereabouts of any of the 1,300. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview with Olga Trusevich, Memorial Human Rights Center, October 30, 1996.
24 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview with Chechen field commander Sultan Kacheyev, Starye Atagi, October 18, 1996.
25 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is grateful to Aleksandr Cherkassov, a member of the Memorial Human Rights Center Search Project, for this insight.
26 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Grozny, October 15, 1996.
27 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Grozny, October 15, 1996.
28 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Grozny, October 15, 1996.
29 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Grozny, October 15, 1996.
30 For a list of Russian servicemen missing and held prisoner and for an excellent analysis of the problem, see Memorial, The Unknown Soldier.
31 Ibid, p. 32.
32 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Argun, October 16, 1996.
33 The source requested anonymity.
34 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Argun, October 16, 1996. Each of the five mothers interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki requested anonymity. Hence we have changed the initials of the conscript here.
35 Press reports frequently alleged that Russian forces dumped the bodies of their own soldiers, unidentified, into mass graves.
36 At the time of the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki mission, between seventy and eighty women were living at Khankala, and many more lived elsewhere in Chechnya as they searched for their sons. Khankala has since been closed as a Russian military base.
37 In a ruling on the constitutionality of the presidential decrees that served as the legal basis for military operation in Chechnya, the Russian Constitutional Court noted that the Protocol II applies to Chechnya. The Soviet Union ratified Protocol II in 1989 but did not adopt it as legislation. See Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 11, 1995, p. 3