Beslan relatives call for 'real justice' as siege trial opens

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The Independent Online

The only Chechen militant to have survived the Beslan school siege in September last year has gone on trial amid calls from bereaved relatives that he be handed over to face "real justice".

The only Chechen militant to have survived the Beslan school siege in September last year has gone on trial amid calls from bereaved relatives that he be handed over to face "real justice".

Distraught relatives in the courtroom shouted down the trial judge yesterday, forcing a temporary adjournment of the case, which it is hoped will draw a line under one of the most traumatic episodes in recent Russian history.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, a 24-year-old Chechen carpenter, is charged with nine criminal offences including murder, terrorism and banditry, and is being tried in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia .

In theory, he could be executed if found guilty but Russia has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in order to remain a member of the Council of Europe. He therefore faces life in prison.

In September 330 people, more than half of them children, died when 32 Chechen militants seized Beslan's School Number One and demanded Russian forces withdraw from the independence-minded republic.

The other 31 blew themselves up or were killed by Russian special forces or a furious mob, but Kulayev hid under a truck before he too fell into locals' hands. He was prised from their clutches, with some difficulty, before he could be lynched, and has since been interrogated by Russia's FSB security service.

Kulayev, whose brother was among the hostage-takers and was killed, admits he was part of the group but says he "personally" did not murder anyone. He claims he merely fired his gun into the air and did not know that the target was a school.

He contends that the original plan had been to seize a Russian army sentry post, a claim dismissed as nonsense by the prosecutor,Nikolai Shepel, Russia's deputy prosecutor general. The case is expected to last for several months.

Kulayev, a gaunt, slight man dressed in black, sat in the defendant's cage in court yesterday looking nervous. Married with two small children, he listened as the court heard that the act of terror was planned by Chechnya's most notorious rebel warlord - Shamil Basayev - with the now dead rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and a Saudi national called Taufik al-Jadani. In the public gallery, around 30 bereaved mothers dressed in black, their heads wrapped in traditional headscarves, looked on in disgust regularly wiping tears from their eyes.

Outside the courtroom Liza Matzgoyeva, 75, who lost her 34-year-old son, said she wanted to have a good look at Kulayev. "I want to look him in the face," she said. "I want to see his face, look into it and see if he's human or not."

Many said Kulayev should face a "people's court". As a handcuffed Kulayev was led into court one woman hissed: "Hand him over here and give us a gun."

Security was tight with many locals still angry that the republic's President, Alexander Dzasokhov, remains in power despite calls for his resignation over allegations that he was incompetent during the siege.

Every lawyer who was asked to represent Kulayev refused, so the court was forced to appoint one.

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