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Discontent With Beslan Trial

Survivors of the school siege say officials should answer for negligence which contributed to the high casualty rate.
By Alan Tskhurbayev
The man who officially counts as the only surviving hostage-taker from the 2004 school siege in Beslan has been found guilty after a long-running trial. But the case, which the authorities hoped would satisfy demands for justice, has only increased the sense of anger in the town.

Relatives of some of the 331 people who died and the 783 who were wounded in the September 2004 school seizure, which ended when Russian security forces stormed the building, say they doubt official claims that Nurpash Kulayev was the only militant to survive.

They also argue that the case has been used to distract attention away from the officials who, they say, share responsibility for the tragedy.

“Everything is clear about Kulayev, but there are big questions remaining about the guilt of officials,” said lawyer Taimuraz Chedjemov who has been representing victims’ families.

The trial at the Supreme Court in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, ended this week after more than a year. Kulayev was found guilty on eight charges of murder and terrorism. The prosecution demanded the death penalty, but Kulayev is more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment because of Russia’s moratorium on capital punishment.

Kulayev refused to admit he was guilty of the deaths in the school. “I am not responsible for the death of one child or for one drop of blood,” he told the court, stating that he had made earlier confessions under pressure after being beaten so badly he was unable to walk.

Kulayev came from the village of Engenoi in Chechnya, but moved to Ingushetia in 2002 where his brother Hanpash lived. He claimed that both he and his brother were taken to Beslan by force and did not know where they were going.

The defence case was bolstered by the fact that very few surviving hostages identified Kulayev, only a handful said they had seen him with a weapon, and none had seen him fire it.

“The prosecution case rested on phrases taken out of context from hostages’ testimony,” said defence lawyer Albert Pliev. “If Kulayev wants to appeal against the sentence afterwards, I will be obliged to do that.”

However, survivors and relatives managed to turn the Kulayev case into a public forum for questioning the official version of what happened in Beslan.

“The trial was more objective than the investigation,” Chedjemov told IWPR. “It clarified a lot of facts that confirmed that officials had been inactive. That concerns the negotiations [with the hostage-takers] and the reasons for the sudden assault.”

Cherjemov was referring to the unexpected storming of the school building on the third day of the siege, which led to mass casualties.

Two enquiries have been held into the Beslan tragedy, one by the Russian parliament which in its preliminary report broadly supported the official version of events, and the second by the local North Ossetian legislature, which was more critical of official conduct. (See CRS 317, 05-Dec-05, Uncomfortable Truths from Beslan Probe.)

Relatives say many key questions still remain unanswered. It has not been properly established, for example, what caused the first explosions in the school gym which triggered the storming by security forces. Many of the hostages inside said they saw “a ball of flame” and then clear sky over their heads.

Elbrus Tedtov, a former tank driver who lost a son in the school, has done his own research and believes these explosions were the work of the security forces. “The first explosion in the gym was caused by a shot from a grenade-launcher or flame-thrower at the attic window of the gym, fired from the nearby five-storey building,” he said, showing photographs in support of this theory.

“Responsibility has to be shared with those who allowed the act of terrorism to take place and those who failed to save the hostages,” said Tedtov.

Along with many others in Beslan, Tedtov believes that Kulayev was not the only attacker to survive, and that at least three others managed to flee. He said he knows the surnames of three who got away, and has given them to the prosecutor’s office.

Other former hostages recall a “bearded fighter with a big scar on his neck” and a “woman of Slavic appearance”, neither of whom were identified among the dead attackers.

Russia’s deputy prosecutor general Nikolai Shepel has said these and other questions will be answered when the “main case” is heard. He was referring to a major criminal case concerning the siege, of which the Kulayev trial is only one part. Three Beslan police chiefs are also being tried in a separate case.

Chechen extremist leader Shamil Basayev and another rebel commander called Abu Dzeit,( thought to be of Arab origin and reportedly killed in 2005), are cited by name in the “main case”, but as they have not been arrested, the criminal investigation has been delayed. The Russian authorities now say it must finish before October 1.

Beslan victims and survivors have identified several top officials whom they want to see named in the same case, including two deputy heads of the FSB intelligence service, Vladimir Pronichev and Vladimir Anisimov, former North Ossetian interior minister Kazbek Dzantiev and deputy interior minister Vladimir Popov.

“If they don’t do it, we will sue them ourselves,” said Tedtov.

“There are a lot of people guilty in this case, but they’ve only condemned Kulayev,” said Valery Karpov, whose father died in School No. 1. “This was not a natural disaster which was no one’s fault.”

“We won’t stop with Kulayev,” said Ella Kesayeva, who is chairwoman of Voice of Beslan committee. “It is the job of the prosecutor’s office to bring to justice the other guilty parties, the generals who gave the orders to shoot at our children.”

Vissarion Aseyev, a Beslan resident who is head of the United Civic Front party, said, “The Kulayev trial has been one more argument by which the people of Beslan can establish who is responsible for the death of their children. It is not so much the facts about heavy weaponry being used - established during the trial - and the failure of the rescue procedures, as the persistence with which the authorities have concealed everything. That has provided more proof that they are responsible for people’s deaths.”

Aseyev was strongly critical of the North Ossetian authorities who, he said, “have tried - and are still trying - to use the tragedy of the Ossetian people to strengthen their own bargaining positions with the Kremlin.”

“The way the authorities manipulate public opinion in Ossetia is standing in the way of…. identifying who is to blame and devising a real mechanism for preventing acts of terrorism, with the sole aim of preserving the life of every individual.”

Alan Tskhurbayev is a reporter for in North Ossetia.

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