Ossetian Revenge Killer Honoured

Controversy as architect convicted of a killing in Switzerland joins North Ossetian government.

Ossetian Revenge Killer Honoured

Controversy as architect convicted of a killing in Switzerland joins North Ossetian government.

Wednesday, 6 February, 2008
If the state cannot guarantee to protect the life, health, property, honour and dignity of its citizens, then a man of honour should take care of it himself,” said Vitaly Kaloyev in an interview with IWPR.

Kaloyev means what he says. He is the architect from North Ossetia who shocked Switzerland - but won many supporters at home – when he killed the air traffic controller he blamed for the death of his family in an air crash.

Now, in a bizarre twist to this story, Kaloyev has been freed early from a Swiss prison and has returned to a hero’s welcome in North Ossetia. On January 18 he was appointed deputy minister of architecture and construction in the republic’s government.

In July 2002, a Russian TU-154 passenger jet and a Boeing cargo plane collided over Lake Constance, killing 71 people. Forty-nine of the dead were children flying on a holiday trip to Spain. Kaloyev lost his wife, his ten-year old son and his daughter aged four.

The tragedy was blamed on the negligence of air-traffic controller Peter Nielsen, who was given a six-month suspended jail sentence.

Kaloyev tracked down Nielsen and stabbed him to death.

He was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, but was freed early, after much lobbying by the government of North Ossetia and its president, Taimuraz Mamsurov.

When he arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Kaloyev was met by relatives, journalists and activists from the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. Placards told him “You’re a real man!”

His reception in his native North Ossetia was even more exuberant, and exceeded that given to Olympic gold medallists. Around a thousand people turned out to welcome him.

Earlier, an Ossetian website had conducted a poll in which readers named Kaloyev their “man of the year”.

The appointment of Kaloyev as a deputy minister is perfectly legal, in that he does not have a criminal record in Russia.

The North Ossetian government has defended the appointment on the grounds that as an architect, Kaloyev is professionally qualified for it.

Vladislav Totrov, the republic’s first deputy minister of education and science, told IWPR, “Kaloyev ought to return to life; he should believe in life. Why is it so bad that he should work for the benefit of his fellow countrymen, prove himself as a professional, give help to some people and find solace in that?”

“I welcome the appointment of Vitaly Kaloyev and I’m glad that we are colleagues now. When I meet him, I will definitely shake his hand.”

But much of the media coverage both in western Europe and in Russia has been extremely critical. The Swiss newspaper Le Matin said that those who appointed Kaloyev had “spat at Swiss justice”.

Kaloyev himself is indignant at such charges. “Do they really have justice?” he asked. “Can it be justice if none of those responsible for the death of 71 people lost their jobs? A six-month suspended prison sentence is all that they got. Isn’t that spitting at those who suffered?”

He downplayed his appointment to a government post, saying, “It isn’t a ministry whose work is considered out of the ordinary. You just have to work and that’s all. People took care of finding me a job.”

Irina Gurzhibekova, a former adviser to the North Ossetian president on cultural issues, said too much was being made of Kaloyev.

“I would not use the word ‘hero’ and I would try to forget the word ‘murderer’,” she said. “May God spare us from suffering what he has suffered. A wounded soul looked for a solution and found a terrible one.”

The Mothers of Beslan organisation, formed after the school siege in the town in September 2004 in which more than 330 people died - half of them children - expressed sympathy for the returnee.

“What happened to Vitaly Kaloyev and to us is a great tragedy,” said member Susanna Dudieva. “And very few people want to share what we have suffered…. I am far from saying he is a hero, and I see him as a deeply unhappy man. But he behaved as a man should.

“He behaved that way because the machinery of state and justice does not work. That forces people to commit acts of summary justice. I’m sorry, of course, for the family that lost a father, but their prosecutor’s office bears responsibility for that.”

There were fears that some of the Beslan survivors might be tempted to follow Kaloyev’s example and commit acts of revenge. But Ella Kesayeva, the head of another pressure group, Voice of Beslan, said this would not happen.

“We feel sorry for Vitaly Kaloyev and his grief, and we understand him as no one else does,” she said. “But the victims of Beslan should not go down that road, no matter what they have suffered. He was provoked by the Swiss authorities, and we are being provoked, but you can’t commit illegal acts.

“The terrorists who seized the school in Beslan also said that their families had died, their loved ones killed and that is why they had come to kill. But this is a vicious circle that has to be broken…. The law is above everything. If only the law had worked, then what happened to Kaloyev and to us would not have occurred.”

Human rights activist Ruslan Makayev said the murder of Nielsen could have been avoided if the North Ossetian authorities had paid attention to Kaloyev’s pleas for justice earlier on.

“A civilised approach to this problem would have involved the local authorities paying attention to Kaloyev before he went to Switzerland and picked up a knife,” said Makayev. “But our authorities ignored him. They began to defend him only when a mass PR campaign started up.

“They should not have allowed this murder to take place. For what happened, we are partly responsible and the authorities are partly to blame, because they knew that a woman and two children from North Ossetia had died but they did nothing to help Kaloyev before he committed the murder.”

Olga Metreveli is a correspondent with the Osetia: Svobodny Vzglyad newspaper in Vladikavkaz.

Support our journalists