BESLAN, Russia (Reuters) - Women who lost relatives in Russia’s Beslan school siege ransacked a courtroom on Tuesday as the judge granted an amnesty to three local policemen accused of failing to stop gunmen seizing the school.
The policemen are the only officials put on trial over the 2004 massacre in southern Russian in which 331 people — half of them children — were killed. Some survivors accuse the authorities of a cover-up.
As the judge began reading out an order granting the police officers an amnesty, the women began heckling the judge and tried to approach the bench but were stopped by a guard.
A group of about 25 women then smashed courtroom windows, overturned furniture and tore down blinds and a Russian flag, said a Reuters witness in the building.
The judge withdrew to a side room and finished reading the order, without members of the public present.
“The victims’ patience has run out. We think the justice system ... is forcing us to take such steps because they have no interest in uncovering the truth about the Beslan tragedy,” one of the women, Susanna Dudiyeva, told Reuters.
Victims’ groups say the operation to free the hostages was botched and that the government and courts have deliberately concealed official shortcomings.
Dudiyeva, who lost a child in the siege and is one of the leaders of the Beslan Mothers campaign group, said the trial of the three policemen had been a whitewash designed to protect their superiors from blame.
She said her group did not recognize the court’s ruling because it was not made in the courtroom and the defendants were not present. “The trial should carry on until its conclusion, with the accused present,” she said.
“All the witnesses should be heard to determine the degree of guilt of each of them, and to find out all the reasons for this crime and all the reasons for this tragedy, to extract lessons from all of this.”
Heavily armed gunmen seized Beslan’s School No. 1 when about 1,000 pupils and their parents were there for a ceremony to mark the first day of the school year.
The gunmen, who were linked to a long-running insurgency in the nearby Chechnya region, killed most of the male hostages, set up booby trap explosives around the school and held hundreds at gunpoint in the school gymnasium.
On the third day of the siege, an explosion tore through the gymnasium and there was a furious gunfight between Russian security forces and the gunmen.
Some survivors allege that the death toll was so high because Russian troops used excessive force. But official inquiries have not blamed any officials, saying the hostage-takers were responsible for the bloodbath.