NALCHIK, Russia – Seven mothers of children killed in the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis began a hunger strike Thursday to protest what they said were efforts to end the trial of an alleged attacker prematurely.
The lead prosecutor, meanwhile, demanded the death penalty for Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the man alleged to be the sole surviving Beslan attacker. More than 330 people died in the attack, nearly half of them children.
A verdict in the trial, now in its ninth month, could be delivered by the end of the month, a prosecutor's spokesman said.
The Sept. 1-3, 2004, raid on Beslan's School No. 1 by 32 heavily armed militants stunned Russia and prompted President Vladimir Putin to push sweeping political changes. Subsequent investigations have exposed a deep vein of corruption, particularly among regional law enforcement officials, and showed how turbulent Russia's North Caucasus region remains.
Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel told the regional Supreme Court in North Ossetia — where Beslan is located — that Kulayev should be executed, something that many survivors and relatives of victims of the attack have repeatedly called for.
It was unclear, however, whether Kulayev could be executed since Russia imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1996 when it joined the Council of Europe. Many Russians support capital punishment and some government officials have proposed lifting the moratorium for convicted terrorists.
Kulayev, who faces terrorism, murder and other charges, reportedly has confessed to participating in the raid but insisted that he killed nobody.
"Based on the sum of the charges presented, I request that you pass a sentence of capital punishment," Shepel said in televised comments that were met with applause by observers in the courtroom.
After Thursday's proceedings, Ella Kesayeva, who heads a group of mothers whose children died, said she and six others were staging a hunger strike to protest what she said was authorities' efforts to end the Kulayev trial prematurely.
The group has demanded that the chief of Russia's Federal Security Service and other top officials testify, including the former president of Ingushetia, where some of the Beslan attackers came from.
"Those whom we consider responsible for our children's death will escape justice, and our tragedy will be forgotten once the trial ends," Kesayeva told The Associated Press.
Many victims' relatives have accused the government of a cover-up, saying the militants had help from corrupt officials to let them cross heavily policed territory to reach Beslan. They also say many victims died needlessly during a botched rescue by Russian authorities.
Relatives of victims of the attack diligently have attended the proceedings in the regional capital of Vladikavkaz, often interrupting proceedings with jeers, sobs or angry accusations. On at least two occasions, relatives have tried to attack officials testifying or Kulayev, who has watched from a glass cage.
Shepel's comments appeared to signal that the trial is in its final chapters. Closing arguments — including remarks by Kulayev — could begin as early as next week, said Sergei Prokopov, a spokesman for Shepel. The court could render a verdict by the end of February, he said.
Meanwhile, the head of Russia's presidential human rights commission said Thursday that Russia should abolish the death penalty, despite most Russians' support of capital punishment.
"I believe that the political leadership should sometimes go against the majority on such fundamental issues," Ella Pamfilova said. "As for the death penalty, our society is already cruel enough."