A southern Russian court today said the sole surviving Beslan school attacker deserved the death penalty, but sentenced him to life in prison because of the country's moratorium on capital punishment.
Nur-Pashi Kulayev was found guilty of taking hostages, responsibility for the deaths of 330 people and of inflicting material damage worth 34 million rubles (£700,000).
North Ossetian Supreme Court Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov said that Kulayev had detonated a bomb that had dealt bodily harm to hostages and government troops. He said that 16 hostages whom the militants executed on the first day of the assault had died in part due to Kulayev's actions.
Kulayev was also found guilty of shooting children and other hostages who tried to escape the school on the chaos-filled third day of the crisis. He had claimed in court that while he participated in the raid, he did not kill anyone.
"Kulayev deserves the death penalty, but is sentenced to life in prison because a moratorium (on death penalty) is in place," Aguzarov said.
Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for Kulayev, but Russia suspended the death penalty when it joined the Council of Europe a decade ago.
Kulayev "acted calmly and adequately" during the trial and therefore "can bear responsibility," Aguzarov said. The court found that Kulayev's claims that his initial testimony under interrogation was extracted under pressure were "unjustified," Aguzarov said.
Asked whether he understood the verdict, Kulayev, a Chechen, nodded his freshly shaved head to indicate yes. He has 10 days to appeal the sentence.
As the judge read the verdict, some victims' mothers threw themselves shrieking on the glass-and-metal cage where Kulayev has stood throughout the year-long trial. Police struggled to restrain them.
Black-clad mothers had crowded the courtroom today, the eighth day of the verdict reading, to hear the sentence. Some held banners reading, "There is no forgiveness of the authorities who let Beslan happen," and photos of tanks and dead children.
The verdict left the victims' relatives sharply divided, and on the street outside the court, pandemonium broke out after the court session as relatives shouted and tussled with one another and with reporters.
"I expected the death penalty and it is not right he was sentenced to life in prison," said Rita Sidakova, a leader of the Mothers of Beslan activist group. "He is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of people but himself has remained alive and my daughter is dead."
But Ella Kesayeva, of the rival Voice of Beslan organisation, said Kulayev remained too valuable a witness to allow to be killed.
"Preserving Kulayev's life gives us hope that all circumstances of the terrorist act in Beslan sooner or later will be investigated," Kesayeva said. "Alive, Kulayev can give evidence on the main part of the case. We hope to learn the truth about Beslan."
Survivors and victims' relatives blame authorities for allowing the heavily armed attackers free passage through the region. And they claim many deaths occurred because troops fired at the school from tanks and flame-throwers, sparking a fire that caused the roof to collapse over many wounded.
A Russian opposition lawmaker is backing up that claim, according to a report in today's Kommersant daily.
Yuri Savelyev of the nationalist Rodina party, an explosions and fire specialist, yesterday presented a report based on his independent investigation into the September 2004 tragedy that left 331 people dead, Kommersant said.
His report goes against prosecutors' findings, which concluded that federal forces used heavy weaponry such as grenade launchers and tanks against militants only after all the surviving victims had been evacuated from the school.
Savelyev's report, however, steers clear of discussing one of the most contentious topics: what caused the blast inside the school on the third day of the crisis — the event that triggered most of the deaths.