Blame Assigned In Siege At Beslan

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

MOSCOW, May 16 -- A judge found Tuesday that the only known survivor of the armed group that seized a school in the Russian town of Beslan in September 2004 took part in murder and terrorism during the three-day siege, which ended in the death of 331 hostages, more than half of them children.

The judge's finding does not constitute a formal verdict, which will be rendered after he recaps much of the evidence heard in the year-long trial. That process could take several days. But the judge's words as he began the verdict reading signaled that Nur-Pashi Kulayev, a 25-year-old Chechen, would likely be found guilty on all eight counts he faces.

"The court has established that Kulayev . . . committed murder against defenseless people," said Tamerlan Aguzarov, chief justice of the Supreme Court in North Ossetia in southern Russia, where Beslan is located.

Prosecutors have requested the death penalty for Kulayev, who maintained he was innocent because he was forced to take part in the raid against his will. "Not a single drop of blood was spilled because of me," he said in a final statement to the court. His brother was among the hostage-takers killed at the school.

Russia imposed a moratorium on the death penalty when it joined the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body, and legal experts said it was likely Kulayev would receive a life sentence. The judge could for symbolic purposes impose the death penalty, knowing it could not be carried out, lawyers said.

Some relatives of the victims said they would prefer to see Kulayev remain alive. "He hasn't yet said all that he knows," said Ella Kesayeva, chairwoman of the Voice of Beslan, one of two leading groups for survivors and relatives of the dead.

The trial has not resolved some of the most contentious issues about how the bloody end of the siege was triggered.

Some survivors who testified at the trial maintained that federal forces who had established a loose cordon near the school perimeter opened fire first, causing the terrorists to detonate a large bomb inside the building. That theory was rejected by prosecutors, who said the hostage-takers set off the bomb without provocation, forcing Russian troops and police to shoot and storm the building.

Some witnesses also said there were more than the 32 terrorists the government said took part in the assault. All but Kulayev were killed, the prosecution said.

The Voice of Beslan group, which has been critical of the government, said the end of the trial cannot obscure the need to bring government and security officials to account for their failures. The heavily armed terrorists were able to cross a region dotted with police checkpoints, and the storming of the school on the third day was chaotic, leading families in Beslan to charge that official bungling added to the death toll.

"We know the terrorists came to kill, and they should be punished, but those who were supposed to save the hostages are also guilty," Kesayeva said. "They are criminally liable for the death of innocent people. It's not negligence on the part of the authorities, it's murder."

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