On February 24, a mass grave was discovered in the village of Dachny (also called Zdorovye), located less than a kilometer from the main Russian military base in Chechnya.
Federal and local authorities denied responsibility for the grave site and instead blamed the deaths on Chechen forces and criminal gangs. However, the area where the mass grave was found has been under Russian military control since December 1999, long before the vast majority of the bodies were deposited there.
The Russian government's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of those found at the site has been wholly inadequate. Russian authorities failed to provide adequate time or information for identifying the bodies, so that the victims' relatives often did not know that they could view the bodies or learned about the identification process only through word of mouth. Russian authorities also conducted the investigation in a manner that did not preserve potentially crucial evidence that might have led to the identification of those responsible for the torture and execution-style killings of the more than fifty persons found at the site. The investigation is further evidence of the Russian government's refusal to take meaningful steps to identify the perpetrators of serious human rights abuses by its forces and hold them accountable.
Dachny was not the first site of unmarked graves to be found in Chechnya, although it is the largest found to date. In March, Human Rights Watch issued a report, "The 'Dirty War' in Chechnya: Forced Disappearances, Torture, and Summary Executions," documenting eight mass graves and eight other makeshift burial sites where corpses of the "disappeared" and others had been found. Most of the bodies found in those graves were last seen in the custody of Russian federal forces, and most bore unmistakable signs of torture. Injuries commonly found on the bodies included broken limbs, scalped body parts, severed fingertips, and knife and gunshot wounds.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed nineteen individuals who searched for "disappeared" relatives at the identification site or at Dachny village. This background memorandum is based on those interviews, on information from the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and on photographs and videos taken of bodies.
The village of Dachny is located just outside of Grozny, adjacent to Michurina district east of the city, and stretches out for approximately two kilometers along the south side of the main road between Grozny and Argun. It covers several square kilometers and, on the south side, borders the main road between Grozny and Starye Atagi. Russian troops established control over Dachny village and the area around it in December 1999 as they closed in on Grozny.
On January 25, 2000, the Russian army established its main base at Khankala on the other side of the Grozny-Argun road, approximately one kilometer away from Dachny village. It continues to be the main Russian military base in Chechnya. Helicopters, tents, and towers are visible from the road. Since January 2000, the road has been used almost exclusively for military purposes, and civilians have apparently not been living in the village. Tracks of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and other military vehicles, however, suggest that Russian troops did visit the village during this period.
The Discovery of the Mass Grave
Rumors that bodies had been discovered at the Dachny village started to circulate in Chechnya in late January 2001. However, as the village is located in the immediate vicinity of the main Russian military base in Chechnya, travel in the area is restricted. Many relatives of the missing and "disappeared" told Human Rights Watch they were reluctant to conduct extensive searches so close to the military base because of fear of being shot at or detained.
The first of the bodies to be found at Dachny, that of Adam Chimaev, was reportedly recovered from the village on February 15, 2001. According to a witness, Chimaev had been detained at a Russian checkpoint between Shali and Germenchuk on December 3, 2000. In early February 2000, a military officer told Chimaev's relatives-who had been actively looking for him-that his body was in a cottage at Dachny village. The relatives subsequently paid the equivalent of U.S. $3,000 to be allowed to remove Chimaev's body from the village. Chimaev had been shot three times in the chest.
Russian officials responded to reports of a mass grave only after another group of relatives found the bodies of their "disappeared" loved ones-Magomed Magomadov, Odes Mitaev, and Said-Rakhman Musaev-on February 21 and formally reported the discovery to the authorities. Russian forces on APCs had detained Magomadov, Mitaev, and Musaev on December 10, 2000, in their home village of Raduzhnoe. The relatives told Human Rights Watch that they found out about the dumping site by word of mouth, from a woman who was searching for her own son at Dachny.
The relatives said that they subsequently informed the authorities of their discovery. On February 24, 2001, the discovery of the mass dumping site became generally known, both in Chechnya and elsewhere. That day, then-Chechnya procurator (prosecutor) Vsevolod Chernov visited the site and procuracy officials confirmed that they had found numerous dead bodies in the village. According to Interfax, Chernov also announced that "all the discovered bodies were mined," something that could not be independently confirmed. According to media reports, the military sealed off the area to people seeking missing relatives.
The Recovery and Identification Process
Between February 24 and March 2, 2001, Russian officials recovered forty-eight bodies from the village. On several occasions, government officials provided updated information on the number of bodies found, but otherwise volunteered no details about their investigation. On March 2, 2001, procurator Chernov announced that the "inspection" of Dachny village had been completed.
The Chechen civilian procuracy, then headed by Chernov, led the operation, in which one forensic pathologist apparently participated. It is unclear what other law enforcement agencies and experts participated in the operation, where exactly the forty-eight bodies were found, and what evidence was discovered at the site that might lead to the identification of possible perpetrators. The bodies were put in body bags, which were numbered, and then taken to the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) base in Grozny, where they were laid in rows on the floor of a huge empty and half-destroyed building used as a temporary morgue. Starting around February 27, 2001, relatives of missing persons were allowed to look at the bodies at the base.
The Burial of the Unidentified Bodies
Relatives identified fourteen of the bodies. Without any prior announcement, on March 10, 2001, the Russian authorities buried thirty-four remaining unidentified bodies near Prigorodnoe, a village just outside Grozny. Photographs taken on the day of the burial show that each corpse was buried in a body bag in an individual grave in a field near the village. As of March 23, two of these bodies had been identified.
BACKGROUND ON THE IDENTIFIED BODIES
Photo and video footage, as well as eyewitness testimony, indicate that the overwhelming majority of the corpses were dressed in civilian clothing and that most were adult men. At least four women were seen among the corpses. The hands, legs, or eyes of many were bound with wire or cloth, and most also bore gunshot wounds to the stomach, chest, or head. Photo and video footage show that the corpses were in varying stages of decay indicating they might have been at the burial site for as much as one year to as recently as several weeks.
Of those identified, the vast majority had previously been detained and "disappeared" in the custody of Russian troops. Human Rights Watch and Memorial have gathered details on the taking into custody by federal forces and subsequent "disappearance" of sixteen of the nineteen people whose bodies were identified. These cases followed the same pattern as that of more than a hundred other "disappearance" cases Human Rights Watch has documented. In a typical "disappearance," federal agents-from the Russian military, police, or security forces-take someone into custody during "sweep" operations or at a checkpoint. These same authorities later deny the detention occurred or any knowledge of the individual's whereabouts.
A number of the family members who were able to identify their relatives' bodies reported that in addition to gun shot wounds, the bodies showed clear signs of torture. For example, a relative of Odes Mitaev, who was last seen on December 10, 2000 in the custody of masked men in military uniforms driving APCs, reported to Human Rights Watch that Mitaev's "eye had been knocked out (he lay on his stomach so it could not have been pecked out), his right ear was cut off and ... two fingers were cut off...." Similarly, the father of Islam Tazurkaev, who was last seen on January 20,2001, in the custody of Russian troops, reported that his son's "right leg was broken, he had a broad cut from above his right ear down to just below his neck, there was a similar cut on the left side, the skin was stripped off his shoulder blades, his arms were broken, and he had been shot straight through the eye...." Human Rights Watch has documented the widespread torture of Chechen detainees by Russian forces throughout the conflict in Chechnya.
RUSSIA'S PUBLIC RESPONSE
When news of the mass grave was first reported, Russian government officials immediately denied any responsibility, refused to provide the public with facts about the discovery and investigation, and misrepresented the facts in what little information was provided. Then-Chechnya procurator Vsevolod Chernov, the principal official commentator on the discovery of the bodies, gave inconsistent, contradictory, and often highly unlikely explanations for the grave. As more details became known about the background of the identified dead, the procurator eventually reluctantly 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. On February 25, 2001, Chernov suggested that the bodies were civilians who had been killed by Chechen rebel fighters, stating that "we might also find other individual graves of civilians killed by rebels at different times." However, he 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 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. On March 2, 2001, Chernov misrepresented the appearance and condition of the bodies stating that most of the victims were rebel fighters, claiming they wore camouflage uniforms, Turkish underwear, and had bandaged gunshot wounds. The prosecutor did not mention that in a number of cases the arms remained tied behind their backs or on the stomach and 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 and appears to have been a blatant falsehood. Moreover, Turkish underwear is worn by millions of people across Russia.
THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION
Russia has failed to conduct a thorough and credible investigation of the mass burial site. As a result of an inadequate identification procedure, the premature burial of thirty-four unidentified bodies, the failure to record and preserve important evidence, and inadequate autopsies of at least two-thirds of the bodies, important evidence that could have led to identification of the perpetrators has been lost. The inadequate investigative efforts in this case are typical of Russia's general failure to carry out meaningful investigations into widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian law that have been perpetrated by its troops over the course of the conflict in Chechnya.
Information about the criminal investigation from official sources has been scant. The Associated Press reported that a criminal investigation was opened on February 26. On March 2, Interfax quoted Chernov as saying that the Chechnya prosecutor's office and "other law enforcement agencies" had set up a special analysis group to participate in the investigation into the discovery of the bodies. No further information has been forthcoming on the status of these investigations.
Russia's efforts look especially meager when judged by standards set out in two United Nations documents. The U.N. Economic and Social Council recommended in May 1989 that governments respect the Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the 1989 Principles), which provides a broad approach to the issue. In May 1991, the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch of the U.N. Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs published a Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the 1991 Manual), which details procedures for conducting investigations into extrajudicial executions.
The 1989 Principles provide, among other things, for the thorough, prompt, and impartial investigation of all extrajudicial executions. The purpose of the investigation shall be to determine the cause, manner, and time of death, the persons responsible, and any pattern or practice that may have caused that death. It shall include an adequate autopsy, collection and analysis of all physical and documentary evidence, and statements from witnesses. Where established procedures are inadequate, governments shall pursue investigations through an independent commission of inquiry or similar procedure.
The Identification Process
The U.N. 1989 Principles require that those who conduct inquiries into suspicious deaths must "seek to identify the victim." The Russian government, however, did not take any of the steps normally taken to expedite the identification process. In particular, the Russian government failed to use its access to television, radio, and newspapers to provide the public with information about the discovery of the bodies, announce the exact days and the location at which the bodies would be displayed to relatives of missing persons, or urge people to come to view the bodies. Most relatives of missing persons found out that the bodies were on display by word of mouth and sometimes by pure coincidence. By March 10, fourteen of the bodies on display at the MChS base had been identified.
Instead of making efforts to inform interested persons that they might view the remaining unidentified bodies for identification purposes, the remaining thirty-four bodies were hastily buried without having been identified on March 10, 2001. The Russian government and investigators made no prior announcement or explanation for the reburial. While additional bodies were identified practically every day prior to March 10, only two more bodies have been identified since.
Chechnya procurator Chernov reassured the Interfax news service that "the material we gathered is more than sufficient for any future identification, no matter how complicated it may turn out to be." However, investigators failed to save the clothes the bodies were found in-a primary way of identifying otherwise unrecognizable bodies as well as potentially important evidence. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, no equipment was available to investigators and pathologists to take dental X-rays and X-rays of skeletal irregularities. There is no evidence that investigators took other steps such as photographing facial structures and clothes, or taking fingerprints and samples for DNA testing, that would facilitate identification of bodies after burial.
The Forensic Examination
Russian investigators failed to conduct adequate forensic examinations on at least two-thirds of the bodies that were recovered from Dachny village. Forensic examiners did not conduct full external examinations on each of the bodies, and failed to remove clothing for testing or inspection by relatives, or to remove rope and wire, and bullets from the bodies for later evidentiary use.
Investigation on the Scene
The 1991 Manual, which includes a comprehensive checklist of the steps that should be followed during a basic forensic postmortem examination, recommends that medical investigators on the scene of a crime perform this series of steps, including photographing the body before it is moved as well as afterwards, recording the body's condition and position, examining the scene for blood, and storing the body in a secure refrigerated location.
It is clear that the bodies were not stored in cooling devices after removal from the village, because officials themselves complained about the lack of necessary equipment. While procuracy officials told journalists that the bodies at Dachny village were photographed and recorded on video and that a forensic pathologist participated in the recovery operation, it remains unclear what steps if any were taken to examine and preserve potentially crucial evidence from the burial site.
Pathologists and investigators did not observe key elements recommended by the 1991 Manual for the conduct of a proper autopsy, particularly concerning the need to remove clothing and "foreign objects" carefully and preserve them for later evidentiary use, as well as the requirement of a thorough external examination. However, a comprehensive assessment of the examinations cannot be made at this point due to a lack of information about the examination and a failure, so far, by investigators to provide relatives of the deceased who have been identified with examination reports-as set out in the Manual.
Photographs taken on March 10, 2001 of the thirty-four bodies that were not identified reveal that practically all of the corpses were clothed and that in a number of cases the arms remained tied behind their backs or on the stomach even after the examination was completed. It is thus evident that items of clothing and "foreign objects," such as rope and wire, were not removed from the bodies. Procuracy officials at the MChS base told Memorial on February 28, 2001 that bullets were not removed from the bodies either. It is therefore highly unlikely that the forensic examiner conducted an adequate external examination of these bodies.
It remains unclear how thoroughly the forensic pathologist examined the clothing and those parts of the body that were not covered by clothing or easily accessible. It is unlikely that any radiography of the bodies was performed as the forensic examiner himself complained that he had no equipment that would have allowed X-rays.
Failure to Create Appropriate Conditions
The Russian government failed to provide investigators with sufficient expert staff and technical resources to conduct adequate examinations of each of the bodies. An official who participated in the investigation told Memorial that only one forensic pathologist had been available to examine the bodies. Considering that this pathologist had to examine forty-eight bodies, it is clear that he could not spend sufficient time with each. Furthermore, the official told Memorial that the pathologist's equipment was limited to rubber gloves and a scalpel.
As of this writing, it is too early to provide a comprehensive assessment of the efforts by investigators to track down and question relevant witnesses or to establish the identity of those responsible for the killings and secret burials at Dachny. However, the failure to save material evidence, such as clothes and bullets, does not bode well. Furthermore, the fact that the investigation to date has been conducted by investigators from the civilian procuracy who do not have the authority to question military servicemen does not bode well. This lack of authority has been a major obstacle to investigating all criminal cases against Russian forces in Chechnya.
It is also currently unclear what kind of ongoing investigation the procuracy is conducting with regard to the thirty-four unidentified bodies. Their premature burial in their clothes has significantly decreased the chances that these bodies will ever be identified. It will be more difficult to establish the facts surrounding their deaths without having first established their identity.