14 years of pain and of lies about the siege and storming of School No. 1 in Beslan
It is 14 years today since the storming of School No. 1 in Beslan (Russia) at the end of a three-day siege resulted in the deaths of over 330 people, 185 of them children.
Russia has, since 2005, called 3 September the ‘Day of Solidarity in the Fight against Terrorism’. Such solidarity did not stop the prosecution of at least four mothers of children killed during the storm for their silent protest at a remembrance meeting on 1 September 2016, when they and one other woman removed their cardigans. Underneath, each was wearing a T-shirt with the words: “Putin is the Executioner of Beslan’ [Путин – палач Беслана]. All of them were first surrounded by FSB, then later seized and sentenced to fines or community work for supposedly ‘not obeying a police officer’ and ‘violating the procedure for holding meetings’.
This was only one of the forms of harassment over the last 14 years of those who demanded answers to vital questions about the siege of the school, lies told about it in Moscow and the decision to storm it, using tanks and heavy artillery.
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, though it is clear that they were aware of the real number from soon after the siege began. 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.
The following are details from the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement (in the Case of Tagayeva & Others v. Russia) from 13 April 2017.
ECHR found multiple violations of the right to life over Russia’s failure to take preventive measures against the terrorist attack on the school in 2004, and over the subsequent storming of it. The 409 applicants were awarded a total of almost 3 million Euros.
There was unanimous agreement among the judges that Russia had failed to take proper measures to protect the children, their families and teachers. 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 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 noted that this was a major failure impeding conclusions about the authorities’ actions in general and individual responsibility.