Dozens of people bearing pictures of their dead relatives stood vigil Tuesday outside the courthouse where prosecutors were to lay out their case in the first trial stemming from September's bloody school seizure in the southern Russian town of Beslan, a raid that left more than 330 hostages dead.
Nur-Pashi Kulayev, who faces terrorism, murder and other charges, reportedly has confessed to participating in the Sept. 1-3 raid on School No. 1, but has insisted that he killed no one.
The seizure ended in mayhem when explosions went off, law enforcement forces waged pitched gun battles with militants and terrified children fled through bullets, broken glass and burning timbers. More than half of those killed were children.
Outside the Supreme Court of the North Ossetian republic, where Beslan is located, a couple of dozen policemen stood armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, and dozens more security officers were deployed nearby. Police officers inspected the boarded-up windows of a nearby building. The roads surrounding the courthouse were blocked to traffic, and a fire truck was parked outside the court building.
Kulayev was delivered to the court about an hour before the scheduled start of the hearings. He was driven in a police convoy straight into a closed courtyard, out of view of dozens of people standing outside the courthouse. Many held pictures of young children and adults who died in the tragedy.
Liza Matzgoyeva, 75, lost her 34-year-old son. She stood outside a side entrance arguing with a court official to be let in.
"I want to look him in the face. I want to see his face, look into it and see if he's a human or not," Matzgoyeva pleaded.
Some residents of Beslan said they were anticipating the trial with dread, fearing painful memories would be dredged up. Others said the trial was nothing more than a formality and an attempt by authorities to distract the public from the incompetence demonstrated by regional law enforcement, which allowed the 32 heavily armed militants to seize the school with relative ease.
Susanna Dudiyeva, 44, whose son died in the school seizure, heads the Beslan Mothers' Committee, which has criticized regional and federal authorities for incompetence, both in protecting the school and in investigating the attack. She said Kulayev would likely be convicted, but the whole trial, nevertheless, would only be a "spectacle."
Samtsayev Elbrus, a legal analyst and regional human rights expert, said officials were also seeking to use the trial to calm interethnic strife by tying Kulayev to international terror groups. Many Ossetians blame their historic region rivals, the Ingush, for the attack; many of the militants were Ingush.
If convicted, Kulayev could get up to life in prison. Survivors of the attack and others have called for the death penalty, but Russia imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1996 to join the Council of Europe.
"The women of Beslan want him for themselves. We'll take him in our own hands and show him proper punishment," said Rita Sydakova, 44, wringing her hands and tearing at the air. "We'll give him what he deserves."
MIKE ECKEL, Associated Press Writer
On the photo: Nur-Pashi Kulayev