Judge Starts Reading Verdict in Beslan Case

The sole surviving suspect from the Beslan school siege took part in murder, terrorism and other crimes, a judge said Tuesday as he began reading the verdict in the trial in southern Russia.

The statement was not a formal verdict, but strongly suggested Nur-Pashi Kulayev would be found guilty in the September 2004 attack, which killed 331 people, more than half of them children, as well as 31 suspected militants.

The attack stunned Russia and prompted PresidentVladimir Putin to push through sweeping political changes that many critics say have dealt democracy a major setback.

Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov said the court had established that Kulayev participated in crimes including murder, the commitment of a terrorist act and the seizure of hostages. He then announced a recess until Wednesday.

A formal pronunciation of guilt or innocence on the eight charges Kulayev faced was expected at the end of the verdict reading, which court officials have said could take four days or more. Channel One television said it could last two weeks.

Prosecutors have called for the death penalty for Kulayev, who has admitted to taking part in the attack but denied killing anybody.

It was unclear whether Kulayev could be executed. Russia imposed a moratorium on the death penalty when it joined the Council of Europe eight years ago.

CountryWatch: Russia

Militants attacked School No. 1 in the southern Russian town of Beslan on Sept. 1, 2004 — the first day of classes — taking more than 1,100 children, parents and staff hostage and herding them into a gymnasium, which they rigged with explosives.

Most of the victims died in the climactic conclusion to the siege, when explosions tore through the school and security forces stormed the building.

Many Russians support capital punishment, and some government officials have proposed lifting the moratorium for convicted terrorists.

Ella Kesayeva, of the Voice of Beslan activist group, said, however, that executing Kulayev would prevent him from revealing important information about the attack. Voice of Beslan has severely criticized Russian authorities' handling of the attack and accused them of withholding information about what happened.

Investigations of the attack exposed deep corruption, particularly among regional law enforcement officials.

Many victims' relatives have accused the government of mounting a cover-up, saying the militants had help from corrupt officials to allow them to cross heavily policed territory to reach Beslan, and they say many victims died needlessly in a botched rescue.

"We propose a life sentence; the death penalty does not suit us," Kesayeva said. "Kulayev has said practically nothing and he knows a lot. We need to keep him alive as a source of information."

Emma Betrozova, 43, who lost her husband and two sons at the school, also favored a life sentence.

"It is silly to ask for the death penalty for Kulayev. The man has fallen a victim to circumstances and has already punished himself," she said. "We are not beasts, we are people."

Authorities repeatedly have said there were 32 attackers and that all but Kulayev were killed. The judge said only that the court had established there were 19 attackers who have been identified, including Kulayev, and an unspecified number of others. He said the attackers seized 1,127 hostages.