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Chechnya: Russia Refuses To Hand Over Maskhadov's Body For Burial

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, slain on 8 March (file photo) The Kremlin is refusing to return for burial the body of Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed on 8 March in an apparent gun battle with federal forces in Chechnya. Russian officials say the slain Chechen leader was a terrorist, and that by law his body should n-o-t be handed over to relatives. Federal forces also destroyed the house where Maskhadov was allegedly killed. But rights groups are warning that Russia's actions could have dire consequences.

Prague, 15 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Rights watchers say Russia is using Maskhadov's death as an opportunity to show it holds the advantage in the nearly six-year war in Chechnya.

Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch says Moscow began by broadcasting grisly images of Maskhadov's body in the days after his death.

He says the close-up shots of the corpse, lying in a pool of blood, do n-o-t offer hope that Russian military action in the separatist republic will end anytime soon. "The fact that Maskhadov's body was shown in such a naked state -- moreover, on all the state television channels -- evokes nothing but sorrow and disgust," Petrov said. "It is absolutely the wrong way to achieve a peaceful resolution, especially in a place like Chechnya."

Moscow is now drawing fresh criticism for its refusal to hand over Maskhadov's body.

Russian law gives the government the right to withhold the remains of alleged terrorists.

Moscow repeatedly accused Maskhadov of involvement in numerous terrorist acts, including the deadly Beslan school siege last year. Maskhadov denied any role in such operations, and the Kremlin never officially proved its claim.

Usam Baysayev works with Russia's Memorial rights group in Chechnya's neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

He says many Chechens remember Maskhadov as the man they legally elected president in 1997. Those voters, he adds, now see the refusal to return his body as a slap in the face.

Baysayev says Russia may be looking to demoralize Chechens. Instead, he says, the move could backfire and strengthen their determination not to give in:

"Russia is using a method of psychological pressure -- to offend, crush, insult," Baysayev said. "True, it has something of an opposite effect. People are reacting extremely negatively to what's happening with Maskhadov's body. They're openly expressing their anger. There's no doubt that after what has happened, many young people -- people who are now feeling humiliated and insulted -- will go to the mountains [to fight]."

Russian forces on 14 March razed the house where they say Maskhadov was hiding before he was killed.

It is n-o-t the first time that Russia has destroyed homes to punish purported supporters of terrorism. After the 2002 Nord-Ost theater crisis in Moscow, federal forces sought out the relatives of the hostage takers and brought their houses to the ground.

Officials justified the decision to destroy Maskhadov's alleged hideout by saying the house was packed with explosives.

But that claim -- like the details of Maskhadov's death -- remains a subject of speculation.

Critics say that with Maskhadov dead and the house destroyed, Russia has ensured there is little evidence left about the circumstances surrounding the Chechen leader's death.

Moscow might also be hoping to prevent Maskhadov from becoming an object of hero worship.

Chechens throughout the republic made pilgrimages to the gravesite of former Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was killed in 1996.

But Baysayev says Chechens will remember Maskhadov with or without a grave.

"Chechens are Muslims," Baysayev said. "For them, the body has a huge fundamental significance that the gravesite itself does not have. Chechen graves don't become cult sites with the kind of worship you see at Lenin's mausoleum or the graves in the Kremlin wall. Chechens, as Muslims, say a person's soul has risen from his body; Allah has taken his soul. That's what's important."

Baysayev says he believes Russia will eventually return Maskhadov's body for burial. But he says it will n-o-t come in time to prevent the outpouring of Chechen anger now directed at Moscow.

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