Beslan lawyer drops probe after death threat

Last updated at 15:40 05 September 2007

A lawyer seeking to prosecute Russian officials for negligence over the Beslan school massacre has pulled out of the case because of a death threat to his family, he said today.

Taimuraz Chedzhemov was lawyer for a group of women whose children were among the more than 330 people killed in the September 2004 siege. They accuse the authorities of trying to cover up official incompetence which they say caused needless deaths.

He told Reuters that the threat was delivered in an anonymous telephone call. "They (the caller) told me I had gone too far and I have to stop, otherwise I will be burying my loved ones," Chedzhemov said. "I do not think it was a joke."

"I have pulled out (of the case). I am not going to risk the lives of those close to me," he said by telephone from Vladikavkaz, capital of the North Ossetia region that includes Beslan.

Chedzhemov said he believed the death threat was linked to a decision by campaign group the Beslan Mothers Committee, which he represents, to name senior officials involved in the chaotic rescue operation whom they want put on trial.

"I believe it (the call) was someone from the entourage of those people," he said. "That's all there is to it."

Russia at the weekend marked the third anniversary of the Beslan siege. President Vladimir Putin said the country would not forget "the children who would never go to school again," and his officials promised a thorough investigation.

Armed gunmen linked to a rebel insurgency in nearby Chechnya seized Beslan's School No. 1 and took hostage about a thousand children, teachers and parents who were there to celebrate the first day of the school year.

After three days, explosions were heard and a gunbattle broke out during which Russian security forces directed gunfire into the school. It was in this period that most of the victims were killed.

Russian officials said they did what they could to deal with hostage-takers who were determined to kill many people.

Victims' relatives say police should have stopped the gunmen reaching the school, that no serious attempt was made to negotiate with the hostage-takers, and that heavy fire was poured into the school with no regard for hostages' lives.

They also allege a cover-up. A Chechen man believed to be the only surviving hostage-taker has been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

But a parliamentary commission has still not issued its report into the siege, state prosecutors are still working on an investigation and local policemen put on trial for negligence were granted an amnesty.

Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers Committee, said the group had not found anyone to replace Chedzhemov. "As you can see, this case is associated with some risk," she said."

But she said her group's campaign would continue, with the next step an application to the European Court of Human Rights to hear the case. "It is pointless threatening us," she said.

"Those who want to threaten us are the very same ... (people) we mention in our petitions, the people we believe are guilty for allow this terrorist attack to happen and for not saving the children as they should have done."

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