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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 17:45 GMT
Scientist denies link to 'snatched' corpses
Dissection class Novosibirsk medical school
Bodies were supplied by a Russian medical school

A BBC News investigation reveals how Russian police intercepted shipments of bodies destined for controversial body-sculpting scientist Professor Gunther von Hagens that were obtained by officials without permission from relatives of the dead.
Natalya Kokaryeva has buried her father, Anatoly Veremeiko, twice.

He died of tuberculosis in hospital two years ago, but when Natalya asked for his body, she was told that he had already been cremated. She was given a plastic bag of ashes for which she paid 1,200 roubles ($38/ 24), more than her monthly salary.

I don't know if this lung or this brain comes from this or that person

Gunther von Hagens
The family buried the ashes in the frozen ground of the local cemetery, in a forest on the outskirts of Novosibirsk.

Standing in the snow next to the wooden cross that marks Anatoly's resting place, Natalya told me about the shock that was still to come.

Seven month's after her father's death, she received a telephone call from the Novosibirsk regional prosecutor's office.

Relative's disbelief

They told her that Anatoly's body had been found among a consignment of corpses that was due to be shipped to the "plastination" laboratory in Heidelberg of the controversial German scientist, Gunther von Hagens, who turns human bodies into works of sculpture.

"At first I didn't believe it, then my hands started shaking," Natalya told me at the graveside.

Anatoly Veremeiko's grave
Anatoly Veremeiko was only buried when his body was finally traced
"The people who did this have no heart and no sense of shame.

"They're stealing corpses, deceiving people and not letting them bury their relatives."

Natalya's story is only part of a bigger picture.

In October 2000 a shipment of 56 bodies and 440 brains was sent to Professor von Hagens' institute in Germany.

Seven months later the police intercepted a further consignment of 32 bodies, including that of Anatoly, which have since been buried.

Charges laid

Russian law permits "unclaimed bodies" to be used for scientific research, but it has emerged that at least eight families were falsely told that their relatives had been cremated.

Local prosecutors have now charged the Novosibirsk coroner, Vladimir Novosyolov, with exceeding his authority and abusing his official position in connection with those eight bodies.

Prosecutor Yevgeny Gosteyev
Yevgeny Gosteyev: Von Hagens may be able to help
They have not filed any criminal charges against Professor von Hagens, but they want to call him as a witness.

"I would like the relatives to be able to ask him questions that I was unable to answer," explained Yevgeny Gosteyev, the chief investigator of the Novosibirsk prosecutor's office.

"They asked me, 'Why can't I have the body of my loved one, my father, my mother, so that I can bury them?' I couldn't answer that question. Maybe Professor von Hagens can."

'No name tags'

Professor von Hagens told the BBC that he acquired the corpses by legal means and that they had been supplied to him as unnamed goods.

"Those specimens didn't come to me as a person," the professor said.

"I didn't have a name tag on them. I don't know if this lung or this brain comes from this or that person."

Body in Novosibirsk medical school
Novosibirsk medical school: Antiquated
The scandal centres on Novosibirsk medical school, where students dressed in white overalls study anatomy in rundown and antiquated surroundings.

At the time of my visit, about 10 students were huddled around a pickled body, observing a dissection. The smell of formaldehyde was overpowering.

Lecturers at the medical school say they have difficulty acquiring and preserving corpses that they need to train Russian doctors of the future.

Agreement suspended

This is why they became interested in the "plastination" technique developed by Professor von Hagens, and why in May 1999 the medical school signed an agreement for "scientific exchange" with his laboratory.

Under the agreement, the school would supply bodies to Professor von Hagens and would receive in return plastinated specimens. That agreement has now been suspended as a result of the criminal inquiry.

Anatoly Yefremov
Anatoly Yefremov: Responsibility denied
"In the words of Shakespeare, this is Much Ado About Nothing," said Anatoly Yefremov, the rector of Novosibirsk medical school.

He was investigated by the police but has not been charged with any criminal offence.

"Like other medical schools in the world, we receive bodies," the rector said. "We never learn the origin of them, it's not our responsibility."

The scandal has shaken people's confidence in local health services and has led to a serious shortage of corpses being made available for medical research in Novosibirsk.

People are also asking whether anyone profited from the body snatching.

Anatoly Veremeiko - Natalya's father
Anatoly Veremeiko's body was due to be sent to Germany
Back in the frozen graveyard, Natalya Kokaryeva reflects that she is, in a way, one of the lucky ones because at least she was finally able to lay her father to rest.

But she does not believe that anyone will be held to account for the anguish suffered by her and other families.

"I am amazed that there wasn't a cover-up during the investigation," she said.

"But I don't think anyone will be punished. In a normal country, this kind of thing shouldn't happen, but here anything is possible."

See also:

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