Tsarnaev Family Fears Russia Would Even Reject Boston Suspect's Ashes

ABC News

Tsarnaev Family Fears Russia Would Even Reject Boston Suspect's Ashes
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Tsarnaev Family Fears Russia Would Even Reject Boston Suspect's Ashes (ABC News)

If burying the dead Boston bombing suspect in the United States is proving difficult, his family is finding it might be impossible in their native Russia.

That is because, according to legal experts here, Russia has a policy of not giving the bodies of terrorists, or even suspected terrorists, back to their families for burial for fear the grave would become a shrine. Instead, they are usually buried anonymously by the government in an undisclosed location.

Faced with that possibility, the family of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is now considering cremating the body and trying to transport the ashes back to Russia, then burying them. Although cremation is against Islamic law, the parents see it as the only way of burying their son's remains, according to Heda Saratova, a local human rights activist and spokeswoman for the family.

But the parents are so concerned about Russian law that they fear authorities might not even allow them to bring the ashes into the country, Saratova told ABC News.

READ MORE: Tsarnaev Can't Be Buried in Cambridge

Tsarnaev was killed during a standoff with police April 19, but his family says they have been unable to find a mosque in the United States willing to perform funeral rites or a cemetery that is willing to bury him.

Protestors have lined up outside the funeral home where his body is being stored, warning that they are even willing to dig up the body if it is buried on U.S. soil. The city of Cambridge issued a pre-emptive statement, saying it would not allow Tsarnaev to be buried there.

READ MORE: No One Will Bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev's Body

The suspect's mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, reportedly told the director of the funeral home that she would now prefer to bring the body back to Russia for burial, even though doing so would cost thousands of dollars.

But there is no guarantee Tsarnaeva would even get a chance to see her son.

Russian authorities could declare Tamerlan Tsarnaev a terrorist and deny his family their right to claim the body, according to the Russian legal experts, including one who is advising the family. The family would be presented only with a certificate stating that he had been buried by the government.

The policy, originally outlined in a 1996 law, is a product of Russia's long and violent struggle against terrorism. The law states that if an individual dies while committing a terrorist incident, or if a suspect is killed during an operation that prevents one, "their bodies are not given, and the place of their burial is not disclosed."

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the controversial policy last year during an appearance at a summer youth camp.

"I agree that it is cruel," he said. "But the actions of the terrorists themselves are not very kind or tolerant either."

While the United States has had little experience with disposing of the bodies of dead terrorists, Russia has had to deal with thousands of such cases over the years. For decades, Moscow has been battling a separatist insurgency in the Caucasus region, particularly in Chechnya and Dagestan, where Tsarnaev's family is from. The Russian approach to the violent confrontation has placed greater emphasis on killing suspected terrorists during raids rather than capturing them alive for prosecution.

"Preventing terrorist attacks often turns into exploded apartments, demolished houses and a handful of bodies," Rasul Kadiev, a prominent human rights lawyer in Dagestan, wrote in a comprehensive blog post on the policy last year.

Kadiev has been vocally opposed to the policy on not returning the bodies, calling it "immoral" and "barbaric."

What complicates Tsarnaev's case even more, the experts say, is that he was killed overseas and not in Russia or by Russian security forces. The difference could make the case a matter of international law that leaves even the most seasoned Russian lawyers in the field scratching their heads.

Still, there are cases where the bodies of militants have been allowed to be buried in the open.

One such case is that of William Plotnikov, a Russian immigrant to Canada who converted to Islam and traveled back to Dagestan to join a militant group. He was killed in a police raid in July near the small Dagestani village where he lived and was buried in a marked grave nearby.

Investigators, it should be noted, are looking into whether Tsarnaev had any contact with Plotnikov before or during a six month visit to Dagestan last year.

Experts, however, stress that such a case is the exception rather than the norm.

In the past, lawyer Kadiev said, some families were able to pay a bribe (which could exceed $16,000) in order to get their relative's body back. But a crackdown on that practice in recent years means it is now extremely rare, if not impossible.

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