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Russia: Court Charges Beslan Victims' Group With 'Extremism'

A memorial to the victims of Beslan (epa) The winter holidays are a difficult time for the many families that lost relatives in the hostage drama that struck the small North Ossetian town of Beslan in September 2004.

For the Voice of Beslan, a victims' group led by women who lost children in the siege, this year's holidays brought further distress: a court summons from neighboring Ingushetia, where local prosecutors had filed charges accusing the organization of "extremist" activities.

"We received a telegram around the New Year inviting us to a Nazran court," says Ella Kesayeva, one of the group's leaders. "We think this trial was specially commissioned by someone. A lot has been happening lately around Voice of Beslan. What's happening now is one more attempt to pressure a civil group that is carrying out its own investigation."

More than three years after the siege, many questions remain unanswered. For Voice of Beslan and other groups, the key detail is who sparked the violence that brought the three-day siege to its deadly conclusion -- the hostage takers, most from the North Caucasus, demanding a military withdrawal from Chechnya, or the federal forces brought in to negotiate an end to the crisis.

After a private investigation, Voice of Beslan says it believes it was federal security forces outside the school, using flamethrowers and tanks against the school, that caused the blast that killed many of the 1,000 hostages and triggered a bloody battle with the militants.

Two reports have backed these claims -- one penned by the North Ossetian parliament's investigative commission, the other by Russian politician and explosives expert Yury Savelyev.

The State Duma has yet to release its own final official report on the events. But the chief parliamentary investigator, Aleksandr Torshin, has suggested that militants were responsible for the explosion.

No 'Official' Account

The large number of parallel investigations conducted into the Beslan siege illustrates the extreme controversy and high political stakes surrounding what remains the most horrifying event in recent Russian history.

Voice of Beslan says its campaign to bring senior officials to trial for botching the Beslan rescue operation has angered many. The group's trial -- currently due to begin on January 15 -- is not the first time Voice of Beslan has encountered trouble with the authorities.

A North Ossetian court ordered the organization to close down in December, claiming that Kesayeva was not its leader and that a former member who claimed to be the leader of the group should replace her. That ruling was subsequently annulled by the Russian Supreme Court.

This time, prosecutors' charges are tied to an open letter accusing President Vladimir Putin of covering up the truth about the carnage to protect top officials.

"We are guilty of electing a president who solves problems with the help of tanks, flamethrowers, and gas," Voice of Beslan said in the text, posted in 2005 on its website. "But it's not our fault that the global political elite supports our president, who has become a backer of criminals."

The charges fall under Russia's 2007 amended law on extremism, which broadens the definition of extremist activities to include "slander of public officials" and "humiliating national pride." The legislation can be applied retroactively and has been used to investigate journalists, human rights activists, and opposition figures.

Regional Animosity

Why authorities might seek to shut down Voice of Beslan is obvious. Russian officials have shown little compunction about using the extremism legislation to crack down on their critics. What is less clear, however, is why the charges come from Ingushetia, rather than Moscow -- and more than two years after the text's publication.

Some see the case as a product of the ongoing tensions between North Ossetia's Christian population and the mainly Muslim Ingush following an interethnic conflict in 1992 that killed about 200 people and displaced tens of thousands.

But Marina Litvinovich, who runs Truth of Beslan, an information website dedicated to the case, rejects this scenario. "I closely follow the activities of the Voice of Beslan committee," she says. "Its representatives never allowed themselves any comments against the Ingush people and never raised the question of the involvement of Ingush in the hostage taking."

Whatever the motive behind the extremism charges against Voice of Beslan, stoking regional tensions in the North Caucasus will not work to the Kremlin's benefit.

"The issue here is not only about the scandal," says Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "This [trial] will inevitably be viewed as an interethnic act, which could have uncontrolled consequences. And that's something the Kremlin definitely doesn't want. Of course the Kremlin believes that Voice of Beslan must be shut down, but they also believe that it's the bureaucracy in Ossetia, rather than another region, that should muzzle this Ossetian group."

Kesayeva says Voice has Beslan has urged Putin to call off the trial. Russian human rights campaigners have already thrown their weight behind the organization, describing the extremism charges as an attempt to silence the group.

Veteran Russian rights campaigners Lyudmilla Alekseyeva condemned authorities for unleashing their "governmental and judicial might" against women whose sole offense is to search for answers to why their children were killed.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)

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