Prague, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen commander Ruslan Gelaev met his end in February this year, reportedly shot by Russian border guards as he tried to flee from Chechnya's neighboring republic Daghestan into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.
Since his death, Gelaev's relatives have been petitioning the Russian authorities for his body, so he can be given a proper burial. Negotiations have been held, and family members have even traveled to the Russian capital -- but, so far, to no avail.
Islam, from Gelaev's home village of Saadi-Kotar, told RFE/RL he does not understand the reason Moscow considers the body of a dead man to be a threat. "I don't understand why they want to use his body as a bargaining chip," he said. "What are they afraid of? That he could wake up and lay some mines under a tank? According to our laws he must be buried. The only thing his mother wants, as some form of consolation, is to be able to visit his grave."
Gelaev's kin are not alone. Families across Chechnya whose sons have died fighting the Russians say their bodies remain in the possession of the military.
In the Chechen context, with its tight-knit kinship structures, Lokshina said this punishment of family members is viewed as especially intolerable and is likely to fuel more hatred in the long run.
According to a little-known amendment passed by the Russian parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin after the hostage-taking siege at Moscow's Dubrovka Theater in 2002, the Russian authorities reserve the right to keep the bodies of convicted or even alleged terrorists killed in combat.
Boris Panteleev, a lawyer with the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, explained: "In accordance to Supplementary Amendment Number 16 [to Russia's antiterrorism law], the burial of terrorists killed during the interruption of a terrorist act is conducted in accordance with federal government procedures. This means that their bodies are not handed back and their place of burial is not announced. The text of the law explicitly states that this provision also applies to the bodies of terrorists not yet buried before the legislation came into effect. In other words, it is retroactive."
The amendment was adopted by both houses of parliament in record time, even though Panteleev noted that several deputies raised questions about the ethics of confiscating bodies, especially of individuals never formally convicted of any crime.
"The first issue that was discussed was whether someone who has not been tried can be declared a terrorist. Under Russia's current constitution, Article 49, Paragraph 3 says that an individual's guilt must be established through procedures laid down by federal law and confirmed by a legally valid court verdict. Legally speaking, only in this case can one speak of a 'terrorist,'" Panteleev said.
Nevertheless, those concerns were overruled by the majority of deputies, who sided with the government's view that handing back the bodies of terrorists could incite further violence.
Tanya Lokshina, program director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, does not agree. She said the government's policy of keeping bodies violates a fundamental desire by family members for burial that cuts across cultures. But in the Chechen context, with its tight-knit kinship structures, Lokshina said this punishment of family members is viewed as especially intolerable and is likely to fuel more hatred in the long run.
"When the bodies are not returned, it's a tremendous tragedy for the family and it is a tremendous violation of the established tradition. And Chechen society values its traditions very much. So this particular practice -- and the law which was introduced to justify, to legitimize, this practice -- cannot but serve to exacerbate the situation in the Chechen Republic," Lokshina said.
Russia is not alone in pursuing this controversial policy. Israel has been criticized by the international community for keeping the bodies of accused Palestinian terrorists killed in combat. Uzbekistan has also been criticized by Amnesty International for the secrecy involving its administration of the death penalty, in which the bodies of executed convicts are also frequently not returned to relatives for burial.
Unfortunately, Lokshina noted, international human rights treaties and conventions do not deal with the rights of the dead -- only of the living. So countries that choose to ignore ethical considerations regarding the dead are not violating any laws.
"I'm afraid that Russia is indeed free to adopt such a provision without international sanction, because international human rights law is a flexible mechanism. It does not go into very concrete, very specific definitions. There is certainly the right to life as such -- that's article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, for example. But it is not stated specifically in international legislation relevant to human rights, as far as I'm aware, that people have the right to bury their dead," Lokshina said.
Gelaev's relatives say they still hope they will be able to change the authorities' mind or buy back Gelaev's body at some point in the future.
"Maybe the Russians will try to sell his body back,” Islam said. “It seems they probably want more money. This practice exists in Chechnya. They kill someone and then try to sell the body back. We have contacted the authorities here in Chechnya. There have been no results."
Despite repeated requests, Chechnya's Moscow-backed administrators refused to be interviewed on the issue by RFE/RL.
(Aslan Aioubov and Ruslan Shamaev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)