MOSCOW -- A court in southern Russia sentenced the only known surviving hostage-taker in the Beslan school siege to life in prison yesterday, a ruling that failed to appease many victims' families who had hoped the trial would expose the role negligence by Russian authorities played in the siege's deadly outcome.
The court convicted Nur-Pashi Kulayev, 25, on charges of terrorism and murder for his role in the September 2004 siege that killed 331 people, 186 of them children. Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov said Kulayev deserved the death penalty but explained the court was bound by Russia's moratorium on capital punishment, issued a decade ago when it became a member of the Council of Europe.
Images from the hearing were broadcast on Russian television. As Kulayev was being led out of the courtroom in the provincial capital of Vladikavkaz, victims' mothers rushed to attack him and were held back by police.
After the hearing, some relatives argued that Russia should have ignored the moratorium and sentenced Kulayev to death.
"I don't think a life sentence is adequate punishment for such horrible atrocity," said Aneta Gadiyeva, whose daughter was killed in the siege. "This is just another stage in his life. He will enjoy his own little holidays - letters from home, photos of his children. He will see them growing, and this will give him hope. Our children are dead, and we have no hope."
Chechen separatist militants and loyalists took hostage more than 1,100 terrified children, parents and teachers at School No. 1 in Beslan on Sept. 1, 2004, Russia's Day of Knowledge and traditionally the first day of school.
The three-day ordeal ended when Russian troops stormed the school in an attempt to rescue hostages. Most of those who died were killed during that rescue attempt, as militants set off mines and explosives in the school and engaged Russian soldiers in a furious, daylong exchange of gunfire and grenades.
The siege, the deadliest act of terror to strike Russia, marked a change in Muslim separatist tactics aimed at spreading the conflict in Chechnya beyond the war-torn province's borders.
Relatives have maintained that the use of flame throwers by Russian security forces and shelling from Russian tanks contributed to the death toll. Russian authorities have denied that the flame throwers caused the deaths of any hostages.
With Kulayev's yearlong trial over, victims' relatives said they were deeply disappointed.
"We still insist authorities are guilty of killing the majority of hostages, though the authorities were supposed to save them," said Ella Kesayeva, head of a victims' advocacy group called Voice of Beslan. "We think the children were doomed to death by the security forces from the beginning, because the storming of the school was provoked by a shot from a flame thrower."
A Russian parliamentary investigation into the siege found that the militants could have been thwarted if local police heeded warnings from federal authorities that terrorist attacks were in the works and that security at area schools should be tightened.
That investigation, headed by Russian lawmaker Alexander Torshin, also found that the militants prepared for the attack in the woods of northern Ingushetia, the small Russian republic just east of North Ossetia, where Beslan is. Ingush police learned that militants had been seen in those woods, but they never acted on the information, Torshin said.
During the trial, Kulayev acknowledged taking part in the siege, but denied killing anyone. Prosecutors accused him of shooting children as they tried to escape and detonating one of the bombs the militants had rigged inside the school.
Kulayev was the only militant known to survive. In the past, authorities have put the total of militants involved at 32, including 31 hostage-takers who died during the siege. However, relatives and survivors have said there were more than 32 hostage takers, raising the possibility that some may have escaped.
Yesterday, the lead prosecutor in the case, Nikolai Shepel, backed away from previous assertions by authorities that no more than 32 militants took part. If evidence exists of other hostage-takers at large, he said, "we are ready to check on this information."
Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.