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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 16:19 GMT
Judge limits Moscow siege hearings
Lawyer Igor Trunov speaks to press outside court
The claim is testing Russian compensation laws
A Moscow local court began hearing an unprecedented compensation claim filed over the October theatre siege by immediately placing tight restrictions to limit the scope of the case.

The presiding judge rejected requests by the plaintiffs' lawyer to summon government officials to the hearings and have video footage of the siege played in court.

Woman holds photo of her relative being held hostage
Relatives of victims blame the government
He also rejected the lawyer's request to have the case transferred to a bigger court, but he did grant journalists the right to make audio, though not video, recordings of the hearings.

The lawyer has told the BBC that the small court is inadequate for hearings in which survivors of the siege and families of some of the 129 hostages killed have already filed 61 individual lawsuits.

The BBC's Nicolai Gorshkov was one of only two journalists who managed to squeeze into the tiny, cramped courtroom, which has barely enough space for all the plaintiffs.

Most of the hostages who died in the October siege were killed as a result of knock-out gas used by security forces as they stormed the building which had been seized by a Chechen rebel suicide squad.

The survivors and relatives of the victims are demanding compensation from the Moscow municipal government worth more than $59m - a record claim for Russia where individual claims rarely exceed a few thousand dollars.

Lawyer Igor Trunov also accused the court of being biased, saying its judges received perks such as accommodation and phones from the municipal government.

"This is not an independent court," he told journalists.

Historic case

The case marks the first time that a claim for compensation has been filed under Russian anti-terrorist legislation against a local authority, and not the federal government.

A woman member of the rebel group
The rebels posed as traders
The municipal government is said to be outraged that, after having helped the survivors and the victims' families, it is being asked to pay more, our correspondent reports.

The plaintiff's lawyers argue that help was voluntary and inadequate and the survivors have a legal right to mandatory compensation for their suffering and losses.

If the prospect of a multi-million compensation payout from the city coffers becomes real, the municipal government warns that it will file a counter-suit demanding a full enquiry into the way the federal security and special services handled the crisis.

Evidence blow

The decision not to allow video of the siege to be shown in court may be a setback: lawyers had hoped to show footage made by the hostage-takers themselves.

It has never been seen before and it is unclear how the lawyers obtained it.

It is believed the tape came either from a former hostage or from a British journalist who had been to the besieged theatre.

Few people believe the victims' claim will be settled soon, or indeed in full, our correspondent says.

But he says the case has shown that Russians are no longer prepared to suffer in silence and want to hold the authorities ultimately responsible for the calamities that are visited upon them.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow
"They will have to endure more frustration than they bargained for"
  Igor Trunov, lawyer
"We should treat victims of terrorism the same as victims of war"
  Vladimir Platonov, chair of city council
"The city does not have the kind of money the victims want"

Siege reports

Key stories

Chechen conflict

BBC WORLD SERVICE

AUDIO VIDEO

TALKING POINT
See also:

02 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
26 Oct 02 | Europe
24 Oct 02 | Europe
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