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Moscow Court rejects Dubrovka lawsuits

A Moscow court on Thursday rejected three lawsuits filed against City Hall by relatives of hostages who died as a result of last fall's theater siege, slashing the hopes of other plaintiffs seeking some $60 million in compensation for their pain and suffering.

Judge Marina Gorbachyova postponed ruling on the remaining 21 lawsuits in the batch, saying the plaintiffs had not appeared in court. But their lawyers said the claims were identical, so the verdict would be the same across the board.

"In this case, a ruling on one lawsuit is sufficient to understand how the rest will be decided," lawyer Igor Trunov told reporters outside the Tverskoi district court just off Tsvetnoi Bulvar.

Trunov said his legal team would likely appeal the decision and would push ahead with the rest of the 60-odd suits filed against the city by former hostages and their relatives.

The six plaintiffs whose damage claims were rejected Thursday said that money -- a combined $4 million -- was not the main issue. Above all, they said, they wanted somebody to be held accountable for failing to provide proper medical treatment to the freed hostages and for allowing the Chechens who held them captive to enter the city.

Of some 800 people in the Dubrovka theater, 129 died, all but a few of them from the effects of a narcotic gas used to knock out the hostage-takers when commandos raided the building. All 41 attackers were killed.

"Moscow must take some kind of responsibility. You let those terrorists slip by you," said Alexander Khramtsov, who lost his father, a musician from the theater's orchestra.

"You should have provided adequate medical care. Why were 400 people taken to Hospital No. 13? There's only a 50-person staff there," Khramtsov told the city's lawyers, his voice trembling.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers repeatedly complained that the judge had been rude and accused the court of being biased, since part of its funding comes from City Hall.

"We were prepared for this ruling," said Zoya Chernetsova, a single mother whose only son, Danila, 21, died after the raid. "Our courts are on the government's payroll. If she ruled otherwise, the judge would be risking her career and her life."

"I think we should be included in the Guinness Book of World Records for the shortest court case in history -- six days for 24 lawsuits," lawyer Lyudmila Trunova said during a recess in the courtroom, where journalists outnumbered plaintiffs and defendants.

The judge did not explain the legal basis for her ruling but is expected to do so by the middle of next week, Trunova said.

The city has denied responsibility for the plaintiffs' suffering.

Its three-man legal team argued that the federal anti-terrorism law cited by the plaintiffs' lawyers -- which says that terror victims can seek damages from the government of the region where a terrorist attack takes place -- does not cover pain and suffering.

However, eager to demonstrate a human face, the city's lawyers said Moscow would be willing to pay out at least part of the material damages sought by plaintiffs who had been incapacitated or left without a bread-winner. Those claims, ranging from about $1,500 to $150,000, were spun off into a separate case last week at the plaintiffs' request and will be considered at a later date.

"This case has been very emotional," lawyer Andrei Rastorguyev said before the ruling was handed down. "It was important for me to speak not only from a legal point of view but from a human one as well."

Although the law on fighting terrorism absolves law enforcement officials of responsibility for damages resulting from counter-terrorism operations, Rastorguyev said the plaintiffs could file a claim against the federal government on the basis of other legislation.

"As for me, personally, I wouldn't care a lick which level of government pays me compensation, federal or municipal," he said.

Khramtsov's mother, Valentina, whose family's lawsuit was one of the three rejected Thursday, said the court's decision was especially insulting in light of a precedent set by a different Moscow court last year.

Back in February, the Basmanny municipal court ordered the Novaya Gazeta newspaper to pay $1 million to the Krasnodar region's top judge as compensation for a libelous report alleging that he was living well above his means.

The plaintiff, Judge Alexander Chernov, later agreed to slash the sum "to a reasonable level."

Finishing her statement to the court, Khramtsova asked: "Is the life of my husband and the suffering our family has gone through worth less than the honor of a regional bureaucrat?"

(The Moscow Times 24.i.03)

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