The Chechens must be allowed to bury their President Aslan Maskhadov with dignity sign now

The Chechens must be allowed to bury their President Aslan Maskhadov with dignity

There is absolutely nothing that could ever justify the stubborn refusal of the Russian authorities to hand over to his family the body of the late Aslan Maskhadov, the only Chechen president ever to have been democratically elected. To refuse now to return his body is utterly shameful and irresponsible.

It is shameful for a country claiming to live by the rule of law to deny a family and a people the most sacred of rites - that of honouring its dead - and, with deliberate intent, to humiliate by showing contempt both for Chechen customs and for the rites of Muslims, according to which a body must be buried before sunset on the day of death. Respect for ancestors is fundamental in the Chechen collective identity, which requires, as a minimal condition for the preservation of its dignity, the possibility to gather at the graves of the departed. This is one reason why, in spite of all the bombing and the abductions during all the years of this war, so many people have remained in Chechnya to die in their own land: "Rather than crawl on my knees," said one very old woman in Grozny in 2000, "I would rather die standing, here." Today it is the body of a leader who always refused to leave Chechnya - because he preferred to remain with his own people, rather than to abandon them - that has been confiscated. As he himself said: "When the Chechens are rounded up and taken away, this is happening to members of my family." It is to this family, the entire Chechen people, that this ultimate affront is now being made.

This refusal is also deeply irresponsible. The terrorism that Russia claimed to be fighting when it eliminated Maskhadov can only emerge exacerbated by his death and the non-restitution of his remains. It should not be forgotten that this kind of humiliation of victims has, in some instances of suicide bombings, triggered women kamikaze attacks, and nourished the infernal cycle of vengeance, with the result that during the last ten years a great many corpses could only be identified in little pieces after mutilations and explosions.

The Russian authorities - with no voice raised in protest - are therefore committing a double crime, one that is morally offensive and politically wrong. In a society which lives its rituals as symbols of survival, which lives its customs and social rules as the guarantee of its collective memory, when everything has been destroyed and a quarter of the population has been exterminated, to stick the knife in further by refusing to give up the body of the deceased man who was the incarnation of a whole people is a provocation. Kafka wrote: "The worst seduction of evil is the provocation to combat." In relying on an anti-terrorist law whose clauses apply least of all to Maskhadov, who never stopped condemning all forms of terrorism, and who was never found guilty of terrorist acts, Mr Putin is subscribing to an historically continuous conflict in which the Chechens perceive that, systematically, not only their country, but also their honour, are being trampled in the dirt. And he is returning to a three-centuries-old tradition: Sheikh Mansur, the Chechen religious figure who led the resistance to Russian colonisation between 1785 and 1791, ended up in an unmarked ditch in 1794, at the Schliesselburg Fortress near St Petersburg. There was no gravestone.

By refusing to give up the body, the Russian authorities are choosing to exacerbate to the extreme the feelings of abandonment and of injustice. They are choosing, by their open, sarcastic insult, to fan the flames of rebellion and revenge. A failure to make a request, loudly and clearly, to Vladimir Putin to return to the Chechens the body of Aslan Maskhadov would be yet another culpable inaction by Europe in respect of the Chechnya conflict. When it is too late, then it will truly be too late.

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Stacey SwansonBy:
Culture and SocietyIn:
Petition target:
EU Presidency

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