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Russia: Moscow Court to Hear Hostage-Crisis Lawsuits

Proceedings begin tomorrow in a Moscow court over an unprecedented series of compensation lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of last October's hostage crisis. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs says authorities must make recompense for their negligence in the operation to free the hostages, which left nearly 130 of them dead. But legal experts say officials are not likely to budge from their position that the operation was carried out correctly. Critics meanwhile cite a number of questionable matters in the cases, including the fact that the Moscow city administration is being sued and not the federal agencies responsible for carrying out the rescue operation.

Moscow, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Proceedings begin tomorrow (16 January) over a series of lawsuits brought on behalf of victims of last October's Moscow hostage crisis. So far, a total of 49 complaints have been filed against the Moscow city administration asking for over $48 million in damages. More suits are likely to follow.

Igor Trunov, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, says the state must compensate for the physical and emotional suffering of those citizens whose security it was unable to protect."The state cannot afford to throw people to the winds of fate, especially those categories of citizens whose ability to work has been harmed and who have young dependents," Trunov siad.

Victim-compensation cases have been heard before in post-Soviet Russia, but those tomorrow are the first involving a terrorist incident.

The three-day ordeal last October began when around 50 heavily armed Chechen militants stormed a Moscow theater, rigging it with explosives and taking around 800 hostages to demand an end to the war in Chechnya.

The standoff ended when Russian special security forces stormed the theater after pumping in a sedative gas to knock out the militants, many of whom were shot in the head while unconscious.

The controversial gas, which officials say was an opiate, also killed most of the 129 hostages who perished in the event. Western experts say the precise composition of the gas is still not known.

Human rights groups criticized the rescue operation for its Soviet-style heavy-handedness and secrecy, saying the government put its reputation before the lives of the country's citizens.

Some doctors taking part in the rescue aftermath said the operation was badly planned. They complained they had not been told what to expect and that not enough antidote was available to help those left unconscious after the raid, adding that it would have otherwise been possible to save more lives.

But the majority of Russians supported the government's actions and praised President Vladimir Putin's decisive response, focusing not on the number of fatalities but on the number of people who survived. The hostage takers had wired the theater with over 100 kilograms of TNT and said they were ready to die if their single request was not met.

Tatyana Lokshina is a legal expert with the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization. She says the chances the court will decide in the plaintiffs' favor are slim because the authorities insist the only alternative to the rescue operation was the death of all the hostages. "Notwithstanding the fact that we have confirmed on a factual basis that many people died precisely because of [the authorities'] negligence -- because the rescuers weren't given the proper instructions, and because the doctors weren't given the proper instructions -- the authorities insist that everything was done in the only real way possible and I think they'll insist on that, without question, to the end," she said. Lokshina says the lawsuits are nonetheless important precedents and deserve the strong support of human rights and public organizations.

Yurii Schmidt is a lawyer who defended celebrated environmental whistleblower Aleksandr Nikitin against treason charges. He says necessary debate over the issue of compensation is being avoided.

He notes as one example the question of whether -- according to Western practices, such as after 11 September in the United States -- the families of wealthier victims deserve to be compensated more than poorer ones for projected material losses in terms of earning power.

Schmidt also says the hostage crisis victims are asking for too much. "I'm of course, let's say, not happy about the sums announced in the lawsuit, because after all we live in Russia. I know that in the United States, some people file suits against tobacco companies for billions of dollars -- which is also a little strange. But that's America, after all, and it has different levels of prices and corresponding compensation for physical and emotional damages," he said.

After the crisis, the government pledged around $3,150 to the families of each of the hostages killed during the siege, and half that to survivors. The amounts are in keeping with usual state compensation for similar losses in post-Soviet Russia.

Trunov defends the plaintiffs' demands, saying that calculating the figures is relative to what each victim thinks is adequate. He adds that Russia has already seen court-awarded compensation packages amounting to $500,000 and even one involving $1 million for emotional damages.

Another controversial aspect of the hostage-crisis lawsuits is the fact that they name as the defendants Moscow city officials -- instead of the federal authorities responsible for overseeing the rescue operation.

Trunov cites the country's antiterrorism law, passed in 1998, which puts the burden of compensation on local authorities. "We in the legal profession are acting within the strict confines of the law. That's what the law says and our emotions about doing it any differently aren't relevant, whomever I'd want to take to court. Maybe [for example] I don't like the administration of the Leningrad region. But the law speaks of the territory of the region where a terrorist act takes place. Suits must be filed in the territory of that region," Trunov said.

Lawyer Yurii Schmidt meanwhile says because the cases actually involve not an act of terrorism but a rescue operation by federal agents, the city likely does not bear responsibility notwithstanding the law.

Moscow authorities have denounced the lawsuits. Deputy Mayor Valerii Shantsev, in statements reported by the website last week, said, "We did everything that needed to be done." He added that the hostage-crisis victims had already been granted adequate compensation from the city.

Evidence presented in the cases will include what Trunov says is a previously unreleased videotape shot by hostage takers during the crisis. He says the footage depicts hostages suffering -- and that he received from it former hostages "by way of a complicated path."

The court will hear 24 suits tomorrow and also consider accepting four more. It will hear another 21 suits on 17 January.

Trunov says the matter may be further pursued outside court, but that the lawsuits represent the first logical step in settling with authorities.