Yesterday a local court in Beslan, Russia, granted amnesty to three policemen who had stood trial for criminal negligence in their handling of the 2004 school hostage crisis, opening up old wounds of what is indisputably the most reprehensible terrorist act in contemporary Russian history.
A woman mourns at the memorial wall dedicated to the victims of the School No. 1 hostage crisis in Beslan
The verdict was met with outrage by victims' groups, who allege a government cover up in the botched rescue attempt. Reports indicate that about 25 women who lost their children and relatives in the crisis erupted into a small riot, smashing courtroom windows, overturning furniture, and tearing down a Federation flag. Many observers were furious over the irregular procedures of the trial:
"The victims' patience has run out. We think the justice system ... is forcing us to take such steps because they have no interest in uncovering the truth about the Beslan tragedy," said one of the women, Susanna Dudiyeva. ... Dudiyeva, who lost a child in the siege and is one of the leaders of the Beslan Mothers campaign group, said the trial of the three policemen had been a whitewash designed to protect their superiors from blame.
She said her group did not recognise the court's ruling because it was not made in the courtroom and the defendants were not present. "The trial should carry on until its conclusion, with the accused present," she said.
"All the witnesses should be heard to determine the degree of guilt of each of them, and to find out all the reasons for this crime and all the reasons for this tragedy, to extract lessons from all of this."
It is understandable that the Russian government may prefer to have this tragedy simply be forgotten - like the Kursk and the Nord Ost theatre stand-off, the president performs extremely poorly during times of crisis. So while the country's main television stations played Brazilian soap operas and the movie "Die Hard" during the bloodiest sequences of the battle for the school, and spread considerable disinformation during the brief news reports (including lies about the number of hostages, the identity of the terrorists, and details about the rescue effort), the president took a little more than an entire day and a half to address the nation after the conclusion of the tragedy. The government's handling of the Beslan crisis exhibited all of the traits that we would come to know so well over the years in dozens of circumstances - secrecy, opacity, dishonesty, and opportunism. The president used the opportunity to rail against Russia's "weakness" as the cause of the Beslan tragedy, fondly invoking the authoritarian benefits and imposed ideological unity of the Soviet Union. Here's an excerpt of the speech he gave:
Russia has lived through many tragic events and terrible ordeals over the course of its history. Today, we live in a time that follows the collapse of a vast and great state, a state that, unfortunately, proved unable to survive in a rapidly changing world. But despite all the difficulties, we were able to preserve the core of what was once the vast Soviet Union, and we named this new country the Russian Federation.
We all hoped for change, change for the better. But many of the changes that took place in our lives found us unprepared. Why ?
We are living at a time of an economy in transition, of a political system that does not yet correspond to the state and level of our society’s development.
We are living through a time when internal conflicts and interethnic divisions that were once firmly suppressed by the ruling ideology have now flared up.
We stopped paying the required attention to defence and security issues and we allowed corruption to undermine our judicial and law enforcement system.
Furthermore, our country, formerly protected by the most powerful defence system along the length of its external frontiers overnight found itself defenceless both from the east and the west.
It will take many years and billions of roubles to create new, modern and genuinely protected borders.
But even so, we could have been more effective if we had acted professionally and at the right moment.
In general, we need to admit that we did not fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world. In any case, we proved unable to react adequately. We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.
Following this speech, the president's well-timed proposal to abolish gubernatorial elections and centralize power by appointing the regions's representatives himself was met with great acclaim by the weary and grief-stricken populace. While most news reports cite the final count of victims around 330 (more than half of which were children), it is impossible to measure the collateral damage of Beslan suffered by the entire population of Russia in terms of their democratic freedoms, and the painfully obvious demonstration that their broadcast news is under tight government control.