The Supreme Court of Chechnya has posthumously convicted eight men from neighbouring Daghestan who disappeared in 2016. The authorities said the men were killed during a special operation — an operation their families and their lawyers insist did not even happen.
The men were convicted on Tuesday of making an attempt on the lives of police officers and illegal arms trafficking, bringing to a close a year-long trial in Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic.
Following the verdict, members of the deceased men’s families and their defence lawyers continued to insist that justice had not been served and that the special operation in question never even took place.
The eight men — residents of Kaspiysk and Khasavyurt in central Daghestan — disappeared between 28 September and 4 October 2016.
On 9 October the Chechen authorities announced that eight militants had been killed during a shootout with police the previous night in Gudermes District, near the border with Daghestan in eastern Chechnya.
The deceased men were represented by lawyers from the Agora International Human Rights Group, which litigates human rights cases in Russia.
Andrey Sabinin, one of the lawyers from Agora working on the case, told OC Media that the prosecution had failed to prove that the special operation actually took place, or that this was how the men died.
According to investigators, the militants’ cars with their bodies inside burned during the special operation.
Sabinin said that the defence believed the men were first kidnapped, and then shot and burned in cars.
For several years, a number of young Daghestani men reported missing by their families have later shown up dead with the authorities claiming they had been ‘destroyed in counterterrorism operations’.
Several local rights groups and experts have suggested they may have been kidnapped and killed by the authorities in order to secure federal funding for the war on terror.
[Read on OC Media: The disappeared men in Daghestan’s ‘fake war on terror’]
Agora, along with the Stichting Justice Initiative, a Dutch organisation that helps victims of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, have submitted the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
‘Flaws’ in the prosecution’s case
Agora’s Andrey Sabinin pointed to what he said was a number of holes in the prosecution’s case.
He said that the police officers supposedly injured during the shootout — whose testimony the case rested on — were unable to recall key details about the shootout when questioned in court.
Sabinin said that the defence had unsuccessfully tried to get the trial moved to Daghestan after Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov promised to grant awards to the officers involved.
Sergey Denisenko, another lawyer from Agora who worked on the case, told OC Media that the forensic examination of the scene contradicted the prosecution’s case.
He said that the bullet holes in the police car that was presented as evidence excluded that the shots were fired from other vehicles, as prosecutors alleged.
‘Such shots could only have been fired by a shooter from a standing position, and of a sufficiently high height’, he said.
He said that the second police car allegedly found at the scene was not examined as part of the forensic examination.
He said that the examination did not find traces of a grenade explosion, as reported by the police, including shrapnel damage or traces of explosives.
Denisenko said that the Supreme Court judge who made the ruling considered that these findings ‘neither excluded nor refuted’ the prosecution’s story of an attack on police officers.
‘How could they appear here in Chechnya?’
After the men first went missing in 2016, their mothers created the ‘Mother’s Heart’ group holding several protests in the Daghestani capital Makhachkala demanding answers.
One of the group was Burliyat Makhayeva, whose son Pakhrudin Makhayev was among the dead.
Makhayeva told OC Media that she was informed by friends in the security forces on the day her son disappeared that he was being held in the Interior Ministry’s Center for Combating Extremism.
According to Makhayeva, in the early days of the disappearance, they were told by the ministry that the men were not in any police station in Makhachkala.
Makhayeva said she travelled with her husband to the sight of the alleged special operation shortly after it took place.
According to her, the charred areas from where the cars burned appeared to show that they were parked next to each other when they burnt.
Makhaeva said that local residents had told them that a car without a number plate was brought to the area on a tow truck.
‘They [said] that they had gone through two wars and know what shooting is, and that there was no return fire’, she added.
Umayrakha Gasanova’s son Islam Magomedov was also among the dead. Gasanova told OC Media that they knew of a scheme in which law enforcement officers abducted young people, planted weapons on them, and then ask for a bribe of between ₽600,000–₽800,000 ($8,000–$11,000) for their release.
As a result, she said they immediately went to Makhachkala to look for them.
‘How could they appear here in Chechnya? Why does no one analyse their calls? These guys, eight people, could not be together because they did not all communicate with each other’, Gasanova said.
She said that once the case had begun, one of the investigators in Chechnya had tried to bargain with them, offering to return the bodies of their sons in exchange for their cooperation.
According to her, the Chechen authorities did not wish for the case to go to court and asked them to sign documents consenting to the criminal case being closed.