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Russia: Moscow Court Begins Hostage-Crisis Compensation Hearings

Court proceedings began today in Moscow over an unprecedented series of compensation lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of last October's hostage crisis. The hearings began with the lawyer representing the plaintiffs accusing the municipal court of falling under the control of the city administration, the very body being sued.

Moscow, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Crowds of people jostled to get into the cramped hearing room of a Moscow court that began proceedings today over a multimillion-dollar series of lawsuits brought on behalf of victims of last October's hostage crisis in a Moscow theater.

Plaintiffs claiming physical and emotional damages have brought a total of 49 complaints against the Moscow city administration, asking for more than $48 million. Another 12 cases were filed today, adding a possible $11.5 million to the stakes.

Igor Trunov, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, criticized the morning's proceedings and accused the city court where the hearings are being conducted of probable bias. He said the court is under the control of the suits' target, the Moscow city administration, which gives judges and other officials free apartments, telephone lines, and other perks. "How would it look if I were giving judges additional payments? It would look, at the very least, like I were a criminal offering a bribe," Trunov said.

Trunov requested to have the case transferred to a higher, federally funded court, which, unlike the current municipal court, would be authorized to review secret documents and other sensitive evidence pertaining to the hostage crisis. Judge Marina Gorbacheva turned down the request.

Trunov also criticized the decision this morning to allow only two journalists -- both representing foreign media -- into the hearings, which were previously announced to be open. The journalists both carried letters petitioning the court to allow them to attend.

The unprecedented hearings stem from last October's three-day hostage crisis, when around 50 heavily armed Chechen militants stormed a Moscow theater, rigging it with explosives and taking around 800 captives to demand an end to the war in Chechnya.

The standoff ended when Russian special forces stormed the theater after pumping in a sedative gas to knock out the militants.

The controversial gas, which officials say was an opiate, also killed most of the 129 hostages who perished in the event.

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, otherwise, it would have been possible to save more lives.

Following the country's antiterrorism law, which puts the burden of compensation on local authorities, the lawsuits name as the defendants Moscow city officials instead of the federal authorities responsible for overseeing the rescue operation to free the hostages.

First Deputy Mayor Oleg Tolkachev said he hoped the court would reach an "objective" decision exonerating city officials. "Moscow has carried out its obligations in paying compensation to the victims of this traumatic terrorist act," he said in comments reported by Interfax.

The government pledged around $3,150 to the families of each of the hostages killed during the siege, and half that to survivors.

Victims and their families and friends say that is not enough.

Nikolai Lyubimov, 71, works as a watchman at the theater and was one of those taken hostage. He was hospitalized for a month after the rescue operation and says parts of the left side of his body have been left numb. He is suing the city administration for $1 million.

He said he had no health complaints before the crisis and has never been given a specific diagnosis by doctors. "No one will ever say anything [about my medical diagnosis]. Do you understand? They just say that [my condition] is a result of these events [the hostage crisis]. And that's it," Lyubimov said.

Lyubimov said officials are trying to discredit those seeking compensation. "The most unpleasant thing is that the Moscow government, that is, some members of the Moscow government, of course, and the Duma, especially the Duma, instead of protecting us as members of their electorate, have essentially organized a campaign against us. They compare us with other pensioners, saying we're stealing from their pockets," Lyubimov said.

Dmitrii Milovidov's 14-year-old daughter died during the rescue operation. Commenting on continued criticism of the rescue operation, Milovidov said he hopes the lawsuits will keep the hostage crisis in the public's attention. "Terrorists, not hostages, should be afraid of special-forces soldiers. Doctors should have Naloxone [the antidote] ready. Things should be organized. If this is now forgotten, there will be more victims. That's the most important thing," Milovidov said.

Milovidov said authorities do not care about the country's citizens. "Human life has never been valued in Russia, although one would want it to be valued in the 21st century and would want those people responsible for that life to understand what responsibility they carry if they're in power," Milovidov said.

Lyubimov, who came to Trunov's firm during its hours for pro bono legal consultations, said he is convinced he will win his case. "Of course. I have no doubts. I'm ready to go all the way to the European Court [of Human Rights]," Lyubimov said.

Evidence presented in the cases will include what Trunov says is a previously unreleased videotape shot by hostage takers during the crisis.

The court is hearing 24 suits today and will also consider accepting four more. It will hear another 21 suits tomorrow.

Interfax cited Judge Gorbacheva as saying the defense will call to the witness stand politicians, journalists, and others who took part in negotiations during the crisis, including Duma deputies Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada and reporter Anna Politkovskaya.