14.04.2017 | Halya Coynash

Russia found in violation of the right to life over Beslan School attack

Beslan Photo Yelena Kostyuchenko

The European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] has found multiple violations of the right to life over Russia’s failure to take preventive measures against the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan in 2004 and over the subsequent storming in which over 330 people, including 185 children lost their lives.  The 409 applicants have been awarded a total of almost 3 million Euros. 

The attack on the school began during ‘First Bell’ at around 9 a.m. on September 1, 2004,  This is an important day for children and their families, and there were over 1100 children, family members and teachers in the school.  The authorities in Moscow consistently lied about the numbers, claiming there were around 300, although it is clear from the ECHR judgement that they were aware of the correct numbers from at very latest the afternoon of Sept. 1.  A few men were killed in the first two days, however most of the deaths and injuries were from explosions, fire and the storming of the building on Sept. 3. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov is reported to have reacted with anger, saying that it was impossible to agree with the ECHR judgement.  He asserted that the wording in the judgement was “absolutely unacceptable” for a country which had on numerous occasions suffered terrorist attacks.

A country which is facing terrorist attacks, however, must take proper measures to protect its population, and one of the points where there was unanimous agreement among the judges was that Russia had failed to do so.   They found that there had been a violation of Article 2 (the right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, because important preventive measures had not been taken.  This was despite the fact that the authorities had had several days warning, with specific information that a terrorist attack targeting an educational institution was planned.  The measures that had been taken were inadequate, with no attempt to heighten security at the school or to warn the school administration and the public of the danger.  There had also been no sufficiently high-level structure responsible for handling the situation.

The judges also unanimously agreed that Russia had violated the procedural obligation under Article 2, pertaining to effective investigations.  In this case, the investigators had never established whether the force used by the State agents had been justified in the circumstances.  Even the exact cause of death of one third of the victims has never been established.  There was no attempt to obtain and record all evidence before heavy machinery was used on the site and the security cordon removed.  That failure, the Court says, “resulted in a report being drawn up that was incomplete in many important respects” and “constituted a serious breach of the requirements of an effective investigation” (516).

A majority of the judges (five votes to two) found that there had been violation of Article due to serious shortcomings in the planning and control of the security operation, and another violation of the same article in the use by the security forces of lethal weapons, including tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers.  This, the Court concluded, “had contributed to the casualties among the hostages and had not been compatible with the requirement under Article 2 that lethal force be used “no more than [is] absolutely necessary.”

There were two groups of applicants, all of whom insisted that the government had failed to protect victims from a known danger, and that there had been no effective investigation.  The first group, which was represented by the Memorial Human Rights Centre and EHRAC [the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre], also maintained that many aspects of the planning and control of the security operation had been deficient, and that the deaths had been the result of an indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the authorities.  

The Court did, however, reject the assertion that there had been a violation of Article 13 of the Convention (the right to an effective remedy) on the grounds that the victims had received compensation from the State. 

The judgement which will become final in 3 months unless challenged is damning.  It is also a sad vindication for the Mothers of Beslan and other victims and relatives of victims who have been demanding answers for 13 years.   The Court cannot, of course, answer many of the issues in dispute, but it has clearly stated that better measures were warranted, and a proper investigation needed and not provided. 

The questions that the official investigators had failed to examined included the use of “lethal force by the authorities, despite the existence of a credible body of evidence pointing at the security forces’ use of weapons capable of causing indiscriminate harm to the people inside the building, such as grenade launchers, flame-throwers, and tank cannon.”  

There remains no clarity as to the source of two major explosions which both caused fires in which many of the hostages died and ultimately resulted in the storming of the building.  The official claim was that the terrorists caused them, however an independent report by explosives expert Yury Saveliev asserted that they had been caused by grenades thrown from outside the building. 

The origin of the explosions is one of the areas where there has been more than simply failure to investigate.  The Court specifically notes that the investigating authorities and courts repeatedly refused to give the applicants access to some key expert reports, with these pertaining to the first explosions and generally the use of lethal force.

The Court’s judgement is certainly shocking, especially with respect to the investigators’ failure to even provide an inventory of the weapons used, despite credible evidence that there was use of “indiscriminate weapons capable of putting at risk the lives of anyone within their impact radius, namely grenade and rocket launchers, flame–throwers and the tank gun”.   The Court notes that this is a major failure impeding conclusions about the authorities’ actions in general and individual responsibility. 

Over the years since the tragedy, there have been constant attempts by the authorities to stifle voices of protest and demands for a proper investigation.  The most extreme came on September 1, 2016 when five women, all but one of whom had lost their own children in the carnage, took off their cardigans at the beginning of a remembrance service.  They said nothing, but all were wearing T-Shirts with the words: “Putin is the Executioner of Beslan’ [Путин – палач Беслана].  

The women were immediately surrounded by FSB officers who then tried to stop  Novaya Gazeta’s Yelena Kostyuchenko and Diana Khatcharian from videoing the scene.  The women were pushed into the corner so that the message on their T-Shirt would not be seen by the official delegation.  A video can be seen here

An attempt was made to detain the women then, but they began shouting and the FSB backed off.  They were later seized very roughly and sentenced to fines or community work for supposedly ‘not obeying a police officer’ and ‘violating the procedure for holding meetings’.



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