Vienna, October 23 – Six years ago this week, 40 Chechen militants took several hundred people hostage in Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater in the hopes of putting pressure on the Russian government to change its policies in the Caucasus. But in the course of the rescue operation launched by Russian force structures, all the militants and more than 100 others died.
In the years since that time, the Russian authorities have neither released details of their investigations or filed charges with the court, preferring instead to place all the blame on Chechen “terrorists” and insisting that Russian police and security agencies acted to save as many lives as possible (On the events, see www.agentura.ru/timeline/2002/nord-ost/).
And as a result, many in Russia and abroad remain critical of Moscow’s handling of this case, viewing it as a cover-up of either the actions of the police who violated the first rule of counterterrorism which is to try to capture rather than kill terrorists in order to learn more about them or the actions of the security services which some believe staged the entire event.
This year, as they have done on past anniversaries, the relatives of those who died or otherwise suffered have been speaking out. Irina Khramtsova, the daughter of a musician who died at Nord-Ost in 2002 said Moscow’s failure to address this issue means that “at any time,” a similar event could occur in Russia again (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=170550).
Because Moscow has done nothing, she said, those who care about justice and also about preventing a repetition of such outrages in the Russian Federation are placing their last hopes in the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg which has “promised to begin hearings” in the near future.
That venue, Khramtsova continued, is the last chance for justice, although she added that it was unlikely that even a decision of that court would have an impact on Moscow. After all, she noted, “if something were to change in our country, then it would be an entirely different country” than the one she and her fellow survivors live in.
One reason the Russian government has chosen to ignore the appeals of these people is that the relatives of those who lost their lives or of survivors who suffered disabilities because of the official decision to use a toxic gas in the rescue mission is that these people insist that “responsibility for the deaths” lies “not only with the terrorists but with those in power.”
And another is that those who lost relatives in the course of what the Russian government called a “counter-terrorist” action say that Moscow has routinely understated the number of dead and failed to acknowledge both that almost all of them died as a result of the security services’ efforts to free the hostages rather than at the hands of the Chechens.
The decision of the Strasbourg court to take up the case not only has encouraged the survivors and their friends to organize demonstrations in Moscow this week and to speak to the press but also has focused attention to the Russian government’s continuing refusal to provide documents to the public about the Nord-Ost affair.
Moreover, even with regard to the European Court, Moscow has sought to supply as little as possible, insisting among other things that the materials the Russian government has turned over be treated as confidential because, official claim, the investigation into Nord-Ost is still continuing (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/79/06.html).
In fact, “Novaya gazeta” reported today, Veronika Milinchuk, the representative of the Russian Federation in Strasbourg, took the unusual step of appealing to the president of the full collegiums of the European Court “with a request to keep secret all materials” having to do with this case.
Unfortunately for the sake of historical truth, the European Court has agreed to make this concession to the Russian government and has declared all documents that Moscow has sent to Strasbourg confidential, an action that means none of those involved in the case can discuss them (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1231729.html).
This week, many of the victims who survived and the relatives of those who did not will join with human rights activists to attempt to attract public attention to what looks more and more like a cover-up of the role the Russian government played in these violent events six years ago.
What is especially sad is that the longer the Russian authorities stonewall both those involved and institutions like the European Court, the more people in both Russia and abroad will decide that Moscow does have something to hide, a conclusion that will in the end damage the Russian government more than anyone else.