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European Court Says Russia Failed To Protect Beslan Victims


Women mourn during a ceremony commemorating the people who died during the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis in Beslan on September 1, 2016.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Russia must pay nearly 3 million euros to relatives of victims of a school siege that left 334 people dead in the southern town of Beslan.

In a ruling released on April 13, the court found that Russian authorities failed to protect the schoolchildren, teachers, and others killed in the ordeal, which began when militants seized the school and ended in bloodshed and chaos with a botched rescue bid.

It ordered Russia to pay 2,955,000 euros ($3.1 million) to 409 relatives of victims, plus 88,000 euros in legal costs.

Russia swiftly condemned the ruling, calling it "unacceptable" and vowing to appeal.

Militants stormed into the school in the North Ossetia region on September 1, 2004, the first day of classes, taking about 1,200 children, parents, and staff hostage. They demanded the withdrawal of federal troops from neighboring Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars and then the center of an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Most of the victims were killed by explosions or gunfire during the Russian special forces' assault on the school on the third day of the hostage crisis. The dead included 186 schoolchildren.

The court said the special forces used "tank cannon, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers."

The response "contributed to the casualties among the hostages" and broke treaty requirements to respect the right to life by using lethal force when it was not "absolutely necessary," it said.

The ruling also said Russian authorities had been aware of the danger of militant attacks on public places such as schools but suggested they had not prepared adequately.

"While certain security measures had been taken, in general the preventive measures in the present case could be characterized as inadequate," it said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Three Days Of Terror In Beslan

Russia's 9/11

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said that Moscow "cannot agree with such a conclusion [about an incident] in a country that has been a victim of terrorist attacks multiple times."

"Unfortunately the list of such countries is growing and is unfortunately growing regularly, so such conclusions for a country that endured an attack are absolutely unacceptable," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Russian officials sometimes refer to the Beslan attack as the Russian equivalent of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and accuse the West of failing to step up cooperation against terrorism in its wake.

Announcing its intention to appeal, the Russian Justice Ministry contended that the ECHR judges failed to understand the gravity of the situation and specifics of efforts taken to free the hostages.

The September 2004 school siege started the day after a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people outside a subway station in Moscow, and a week after bombs authorities said were detonated by Chechen women brought down two Russian passenger planes on August 24, killing 90 people.

The spate of attacks undermined Putin's claims to have reined in militants from Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics during his first term, and prompted him to take measures that critics said tightened the Kremlin's control over politics and rolled back democracy in Russia.

Some of the survivors, victims' relatives, and other Russians blame the authorities for most of the deaths in Beslan, but no Russian official has been held responsible.

More than 400 victims and relatives filed the case with the Strasbourg court after a Russian investigation stalled years ago.

A lawyer who represented victims and their families said the ECHR ruling was only a partial victory, and that the focus would now be on trying to hold Russian officials to account.

"We are not entirely happy with the decision," Sergei Knyazkin, a lawyer for the Beslan Mothers Committee campaign group, told the Reuters news agency. "Three million euros in compensation is not enough, because you cannot measure the death of children in such figures."

"The victims insist that the authorities carry the blame for the badly conducted operation to free the hostages in Beslan," Knyazkin said.

Russia often bristles at rulings against it by the ECHR, claiming they are politicized.

In December 2015, Putin signed legislation creating a mechanism that Russia says allows it to disregard international rulings, including those of the Strasbourg-based court, if they are believed to contravene the Russian Constitution.

With reporting by AFP, BBC, and AP
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