Human Rights Watch urged an urgent investigation into the mass grave discovered Saturday near the main Russian military base in Chechnya.
In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the international monitoring organization called on the Russian government to make public all available information about the grave, to allow relatives of missing persons to search for their loved ones among the bodies, and to ask the Council of Europe to provide a team of forensic medical experts to participate in the investigation. Human Rights Watch also wrote to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe urging the organization to offer its assistance investigating the grave.
On February 24, local residents discovered a mass grave-possibly containing as many as 200 dead bodies-in an abandoned village in the vicinity of the Khankala military base. According to press reports, after news of the grave became known, a Grozny man found among the corpses his sixteen-year-old son, who had been missing since December 2000. He also found the body of the young man with whom his son had gone missing. Russian law enforcement agents have apparently sealed off the area to prevent people from looking for missing relatives.
"We have established a clear pattern of cases when people 'disappear' in the custody of Russian troops," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "So the discovery of this mass grave is very alarming." The mass grave discovered near Khankala is not the first unmarked grave to be found in Chechnya. Throughout the past six months, unmarked graves containing the bodies of people who had previously "disappeared" in the custody of Russian troops were found in several villages, including Starye Atagi, Dzhalka, Gekhi, Duba-Yurt and Mesker-Yurt. Many of the bodies had been severely mutilated. Injuries commonly found on these bodies included broken limbs, scalped body parts, cut off fingertips, knife and gunshot wounds.
Human Rights Watch and Memorial, a leading Russian human rights group, have recently documented more than fifty cases in which relatives or others witnessed Russian forces detaining individuals, but were unable to obtain any further information about their whereabouts. In most cases, law enforcement agencies flatly denied that the detention had ever taken place. [Human Rights Watch issued a field update on abuses in Chechnya on January 22, 2001 with further information on this trend.]
In one case, the parents of three young men managed to receive confirmation that their sons had been taken to the Khankala military base. After Islam Dombaev (15), Murad Lianov (17), and Timor Tabzhanov (18) were detained on June 28, 2000 in Grozny, local Chechen police informed the parents that Ministry of Interior forces had detained the three and taken them to Khankala. Parents' inquiries at the base have yielded no result. The head of the unit that detained the three refused to appear for questioning at the Grozny procuracy. The military procuracy claims military servicemen had nothing to do with this "disappearance."
Russian prosecutors have opened criminal investigations into some of these "disappearances." However, the investigations are plagued with serious deficiencies, and so far produced no results. [On February 9, 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a memorandum on domestic prosecutions.]