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When news of the mass dumping ground was first reported, Russian government officials immediately denied any responsibility, refused to provide the public with essential information about the discovery and its investigation, and misrepresented the facts in its limited public statements. Vsevolod Chernov, the principal official commentator on the discovery of the bodies, gave inconsistent, contradictory, and often highly unlikely explanations for their presence. As more details became known about the background of the dead who were identified, the procurator eventually admitted that some "disappeared" civilians might be among them. The Russian procurator general and top government officials remained completely silent.

In his public statements, Chernov withheld key information and distorted evidence that implicated Russian forces in the deaths. He asserted both that the bodies were civilians killed by Chechen fighters and criminal gangs, and that the bodies belonged to Chechen fighters who had died in military hostilities.

On February 25, 2001, the day after news broke of the mass dumping ground, Chernov suggested that the bodies were civilians who had been killed by Chechen rebel fighters and dumped at Dachny village. Interfax quoted him as saying that "eleven bodies of civilians have been found" in Dachny and that "we might also find other individual graves of civilians killed by rebels at different times."47 The next day, after another five bodies were found, Chernov suggested that some of the bodies might have been people taken hostage by Chechen criminal gangs. Thegovernment-controlled television station RTR quoted Chernov as saying that "the remains of sixteen bodies are most likely those of hostages seized by the terrorists."48

Itar-Tass attributed more careful words to Chernov, quoting him as saying that "according to some sources, hostages were held there [in Dachny] three or four years ago." In the same interview with Itar-Tass, Chernov also appeared to suggest that the bodies might be people who were killed during military hostilities in Dachny village. He said: "Besides, it was a site of fighting because some houses are destroyed."49

Chernov did not inform the public that the Khankala military base was adjacent to the dumping ground in Dachny village, nor did he mention that the bodies were found in an area long under Russian military control. Rebel fighters carrying numerous dead bodies would have had to repeatedly pass through highly secure military checkpoints on the Grozny-Argun road near the base, which is unlikely. Chernov also failed to mention that there were fresh tracks of APCs in the village, which indicate the recent presence of Russian soldiers-Chechen rebel fighters do not have APCs.

Another week later, on March 2, 2001, Chernov stated in an interview with Interfax that most bodies had "likely" been Chechen rebel fighters. The Interfax news report stated:

He [Chernov] said that according to the preliminary investigation "it is likely that the majority of the dead were rebels." The procurator said that their clothes testified to this fact: "many had on camouflage uniforms of foreign make and Turkish-made underwear." In addition Chernov said that "almost all the bodies found were of men of working age." The majority of them have gunshot wounds that been bandaged [sic]. In this connection, the republican procurator did not rule out the possibility that the village of Zdorovye "was used as a kind of cemetery." According to initial information, the people whose bodies have been discovered there "died at different times, from a month and a half to a year ago." The dead may also include foreigners who fought with bandit formations, stressed Chernov. According to one theory of the investigation, when the rebels took their injured and dead out of Grozny, they left "aliens" behind in the village and took their "fellow countrymen" with them for burial, the prosecutor explained.50

The procurator did not mention that in a number of cases the arms remained tied, some behind their backs, or that some were blindfolded, clearly indicating that these persons were in detention at the time of their death. He also failed to mention that some of the bodies bore clear signs of torture, including severed ears and fingers, scalpings, and broken limbs. His description of bandaged gunshot wounds and camouflage uniforms is not confirmed by photo and video footage of the corpses. Moreover, Turkish underwear is worn by millions of people across Russia.

In that same report, Chernov reluctantly admitted for the first time that "some" Chechen civilians who had "disappeared" in the custody of federal troops "may have been buried in the village." He said that investigators are "analyzing current statements regarding the disappearance of local residents on the republic's territory."51

On March 11, 2001, the procurator finally admitted that most of the identified remains were those of civilians who had "died from gunshot wounds at different times." However, he added that there were "also rebels among the bodies and that several rebel group contacts were identified last week."52

While Chernov speculated about how those found in the grave had died, he criticized efforts by nongovernmental organizations to document the summary executions and publicize their findings. He accused Memorial of "leaping to conclusions" when it reported that some of the bodies were "disappeared" civilians.53

The Memorial Human Rights Center interviewed the relatives of more than a dozen of people whose bodies were recovered from Dachny village. In each of these cases, there was convincing evidence that the person had previously "disappeared" in the custody of Russian troops. On March 5, they released their preliminary findings at a press conference; on March 13, 2001, Chernov criticized the Memorial Human Rights Center for doing so. In an interview with Interfax, he said: "[I]f the authors of this theory have well-founded evidence, they should apply to the prosecutors, not to the mass media. We, on our part, don't find it possible to express unchecked theories."54 Prior to its press conference, Memorial sent a letter to Procurator General Vladimir Ustinov about the discovery of the bodies.

47 Interfax news agency, February 25, 2001, as cited in BBC Worldwide. 48 Russia TV, February 26, 2001, as cited in BBC Worldwide. 49 Itar-Tass news agency, February 26, 2001, as cited in BBC Worldwide. 50 Interfax news agency, March 2, 2001, as cited in BBC Worldwide. 51 Ibid. 52 Interfax news agency, March 11, 2001, as cited in BBC Monitoring. 53 Ibid. 54 Maura Reynolds, "His Wife Killed, Chechen Judge Loses Faith in Law," Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2001.

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