VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia – A southern Russian court on Friday sentenced the sole surviving Beslan school attacker to life in prison, capping a yearlong trial that survivors and victims' relatives say has left the most essential questions about the tragedy unanswered.
They demand to know just who bore the most responsibility: Nur-Pashi Kulayev and his 31 fellow militants, or the officials whose negligence or even alleged complicity allowed them to seize hundreds of children and parents on the first day of school in September 2004.
"I did not go to court to become convinced of Kulayev's guilt, but to reconstruct all the circumstances of the terrorist attack and find the truth," said Aneta Gadiyeva, whose daughter was killed. "But I did not learn anything new and did not get any answers."
The North Ossetian Supreme Court found Kulayev guilty of taking hostages, responsibility for the deaths of 330 people in September 2004 and of inflicting material damage worth $1.3 million.
Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov said that Kulayev had detonated a bomb that had dealt bodily harm to hostages and government troops. He said that 16 male hostages whom the militants executed on the first day of the assault had died in part due to Kulayev's actions.
Kulayev was also found guilty of shooting children and other hostages who tried to escape the school on the chaos-filled third day of the crisis. He had claimed in court that while he participated in the raid, he did not kill anyone.
"Kulayev deserves the death penalty, but is sentenced to life in prison because a moratorium (on death penalty) is in place," Aguzarov said.
Asked whether he understood the verdict, Kulayev, a Chechen, nodded his freshly shaved head to indicate yes. He has 10 days to appeal the sentence.
Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for Kulayev, but Russia suspended the death penalty when it joined the Council of Europe a decade ago. Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel, who led the government's case, said he was satisfied with the verdict.
"Kulayev has been pronounced guilty on all counts," Shepel told reporters.
But victims' relatives were deeply critical of the trial, and the Mothers of Beslan activist group accused prosecutors of carrying out a "superficial and one-sided investigation ... meant only to establish the terrorists' and Kulayev's guilt."
The group said investigators had not probed who was responsible for a chain of alleged errors: the failure to take security measures in spite of a heightened danger of terrorist attacks, the refusal to negotiate with the hostage-takers, underreporting the number of hostages involved early in the crisis, the lack of preparation for storming the school, the unpreparedness of the rescue services and the "uncontrolled use of tanks, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers and other weapons."
Shepel repeated Friday that the prosecutors' view that the officials handling the rescue operation had not been negligent.
"The actions of the members of the operational headquarters have been investigated. We found their actions did not constitute a crime," Shepel told reporters.
On the street outside the court, pandemonium broke out after the court session as relatives shouted and tussled with one another and with reporters.
"I expected the death penalty and it is not right he was sentenced to life in prison," said Rita Sidakova, a leader of the Mothers of Beslan activist group. "He is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of people but himself has remained alive and my daughter is dead."
But Ella Kesayeva, of the rival Voice of Beslan organization, said Kulayev remained too valuable a witness to allow to be killed.
"Preserving Kulayev's life gives us hope that all circumstances of the terrorist act in Beslan sooner or later will be investigated," Kesayeva said. "Alive, Kulayev can give evidence on the main part of the case. We hope to learn the truth about Beslan."