- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
The European Court of Human Rights said Russia violated European human rights law, failed to prevent the 2004 Beslan school siege, and deployed excessive force that exacerbated the death toll. The ruling comes after years of stalled domestic investigations into the bloody tragedy.
The court, ruling on Thursday, ordered Russia to pay 3 million euros to the families of the victims. The siege took the lives of 330 people, including 186 children.
Russia, which ratified the European Convention on Human Rights immediately denounced the ruling, dismissing the decision as “unacceptable” and saying it will appeal it. But it’s Russia’s own behavior that led to the court case in the first place. Russia’s investigations stalled, and the main one, which is still ongoing, suggests officials acted lawfully. So over 400 survivors and relatives of the victims filed applications to the court between 2007 and 2011. Russia now has three months to appeal the case to the Grand Chamber of Court.
In September 2004, 30 militants, followers of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, took more than 1000 people hostage in Beslan School Number One. They were demanding that Russia leave Chechnya (Beslan is in nearby North Ossetia). The hostages were kept in the school gym for three days. The gym was mined. Hostages were denied water.
Russia responded by setting off explosives and exchanging fire. Fire spread. The roof collapsed. Hundreds were killed. It was reminiscent of Moscow in 2002, when Russian forces responded to a hostage situation in a theater by pumping in toxic gas, killing 170.
Now, almost 13 years later, the ECHR has ruled Russia used disproportionate force, failed to try to minimize loss of life, failed to coordinate medical and rescue teams, and also knew that such an attack was coming and didn’t do anything to stop it — like stop the militants from meeting, or increase security at the school, or warn anyone. Additionally, “for one third of the victims, the exact cause of death had not been established,” because investigators didn’t fully forensically examine them, or even bother to locate the hostages’ bodies.
“The Court could not avoid the conclusion that this lack of responsibility and coordination had contributed, to some extent, to the tragic outcome of the events,” the judges said.
“We certainly cannot agree with such an assessment, in a country which has suffered from more than one terrorist attack,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said of the ruling. And, indeed, this ruling does come not too long after a bombing on the St. Petersburg metro that killed 14 — after which unfounded conspiracy theories of government involvement abounded, so often does the Kremlin make political hay out of tragedy.
Photo credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images