Chechen Gets Life in Beslan Takeover Trial

A judge in Southern Russia convicts a Chechen man of taking part in the Beslan school siege two years ago. The assault killed more than 330 people — more than half of them children. Nurpashi Kulayev was sentenced to life in prison. The judge said that only a ban on capital punishment prevented the man from being executed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In southern Russia today, a court sentenced the only attacker arrested in the deadly Beslan school siege to life in prison. The judge said that only a ban on capital punishment prevented the man from being executed.

The assault on the school two years ago, killed more than 330 people, and more than half of the dead were children.

NPR's Gregory Feifer joins us now from Moscow. And, Gregory, remind us of what happened during that attack, which was, of course, quite tragic.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

It happened on the first day of school in September of 2004, in the southern region of North Ossetia. A group of rebels took over 1300 hostage, some of them children, some of them teachers and other who happened to be at the school; and herded them into a gym, which was wired with bombs.

The hostages were kept there for three days; they weren't allowed food or water. And conditions were very hot; they were stripping down to their underwear and - just in absolutely miserable conditions.

Russian forces staged a rescue attempt three days into the siege. They used tanks and heavy weapons that apparently killed most of the most of the 330 victims.

MONTAGNE: And what part did the man who has been sentenced to life in prison play in the siege.

FEIFER: Nurpashi Kulayev is a 25-year-old former carpenter, a Chechen. He's maintained his innocence all along. He said he was forced to take part by the rebels who organized the operation. He says he hid in the cafeteria of the school throughout most of the siege, and that he killed no one; that he didn't fire a single bullet.

He was arrested - caught hours after the siege ended. He was found hiding underneath a truck not far away from the school.

MONTAGNE: Now Chechens have been battling for independence for more than a decade. What was the aim of the school assault?

FEIFER: The rebels who staged the assault demanded an end to Russia's brutal war in Chechnya that's been going on since 1994. This was a second such siege that took place in Russia. Another one took place shortly before in a Moscow theatre, where many died also in rescue attempts by Russian authorities, when they pumped in an unknown gas to knock out the hostage-takers. But there have been a number of terrorist attacks - bombs, suicide bombing, and such - there's been lull recently, since the Beslan siege. But analysts say that as long as this war goes on, Russia can expect more of the same.

MONTAGNE: And the people of Beslan, how are they coping at this point?

FEIFER: Badly. The community is in deep shock after the death of so many children. The relatives of those killed, and survivors of the siege, have received a lot of money, housing has been built, and so on; so in that regard, they're doing better than they were before. It was a very poor town before.

But the relatives of the victims say that the real culprits haven't been found. Some of them say that Kulayev, who was sentenced today, is a scapegoat; and that he is really hiding the blame of officials, who, first of all, let the assault take place - they failed to stop it - and also carried out a bungled rescue operation that ended in so many deaths.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much.

FEIFER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gregory Feifer, speaking from Moscow.

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