European Court takes steps towards securing justice for victims of Beslan School Siege

Published: 2 Jul 2015

Memorial to those who died during the siege
Memorial to those who died during the siege

Hundreds of victims of the Beslan school siege came a step closer to justice today with a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to allow their claim against Russia to proceed. The Court declared admissible the complaints of approximately 400 applicants against Russia alleging violations of their right to life before, during and after the siege. On 1 September 2004 – traditionally the first day of the academic year in Russia and the national Day of Knowledge – 1,128 people, of whom 886 were children, were taken hostage at Beslan School No.1, North Ossetia, by heavily armed Chechen separatists. They were held for three days until the school was stormed by Russian forces. The ensuing fighting resulted in 331 deaths (including 186 children) and countless injuries. The Court’s decision marks progress towards redress for the victims and their families.

The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and Memorial Human Rights Centre in Russia are representing 346 applicants, including surviving hostages and their relatives, who have taken their case to the European Court.

The applicants holding photos of the family members that they lost during the hearing at the European Court
The applicants holding photos of the family members that they lost during the hearing at the European Court

Tagayeva and others v Russia was lodged in June 2007, and heard before the Chamber of the European Court in October 2014, just over ten years since the siege took place. Oral hearings at the European Court are held only in exceptional circumstances, indicating the gravity of the Beslan case.

Ella Kesayeva chairs the Voice of Beslan, a grassroots NGO formed by the close relatives of those who died during the siege; her daughter was held hostage and suffered injuries. Speaking to EHRAC in October 2014, she said:

“Everybody saw the school under attack with their own eyes, and there was hope that all that would be acknowledged. However, we were oppressed and forced to remain silent. Even so, going to court became our job. The years went by. I didn’t work for five years, I went to court instead. Finally, in 2007 we applied to Strasbourg.”

Significantly, the Court has held admissible the entirety of the applicants’ arguments that Russia violated their right to life, and will now proceed to consider the merits of these complaints. The Court will be examining arguments that the Russian authorities failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or minimise the attack; that the control and planning of the rescue operation was inadequate; that the use of lethal force was disproportionate; and that the investigation into the loss of life was ineffective. Jessica Gavron, EHRAC Legal Director, said: “Today’s decision of the Court is welcome on behalf of victims who have fought for so long to be heard, and underscores the continuing importance of the European Court of Human Rights in addressing grave abuses of human rights.”

“We do not need compensation, we need the [Court’s] decision. Our children will never return. Beslan remains unresolved and our future is uncertain… The decision of the European Court is necessary for people to have hope, to set a precedent for the future.”

Ella Kesayeva, speaking before the hearing