Latynina on Dubrovka

Writing in the Moscow Times, hero journalist Yulia Latynina (pictured) sums up the bleak prospects of the Dubrovka “investigation.”

The Prosecutor General’s Office has suspended its investigation into the 2002 Dubrovka theater siege. The announcement came at an opportune moment for the prosecutor general — the day after Andrei Lugovoi’s news conference concerning murder charges filed against him in Britain in the poisoning of former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko — and therefore went almost unnoticed.

Unlike the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, the Dubrovka crisis was the subject of little official investigation. Beslan is in the Caucasus, Dubrovka in Moscow. In Beslan, the victims huddled together in the gymnasium of School No. 1 were all relatives and acquaintances, while in the Moscow theater each hostage was a separate member of the capital’s fragmented society. Entire families and clans are calling for a complete investigation in Beslan, but the only people still pushing for an investigation of Dubrovka are Tatyana Karpova, the chairwoman of the Nord-Ost victims’ committee, Svetlana Gubareva, one of the victims, and their lawyer, Karina Moskalenko.

Instead of an investigation into the way security forces handled the Dubrovka hostage rescue, we got only an interview with Igor Trunov, the lawyer who first represented the victims’ families, regarding his fight for damages against the Moscow government. Only when Moskalenko took over from Trunov did she assemble the necessary information to determine that 174 people died in the rescue attempt, and not the officially announced total of 129. Can you imagine the reaction if the count was off by even one victim in Beslan?

The Dubrovka assault was unique in that it was successful, but the aftermath botched. The use of gas and storming the hall went fine. Most of the deaths occurred because the security forces laid hostages dragged out of the theater on their backs, and many choked to death on their own tongues. Laying them facedown would have saved many.

No one can say whether the decision to use the gas was the right one, but using an experimental variant definitely raised the risk of unknown side effects. Without the gas, there was a chance the terrorists could have blown up the building and everyone inside. It’s hard to pick the best option. A person with gangrene can’t complain if a doctor amputates his or her leg, as only the doctor knows whether it had to be done to save a life.

The only way to come to a conclusion on the gas is to conduct an open investigation of every action taken and order given. But no such investigation was ever performed. Rather than trying to determine what, if any, mistakes were made so as to avoid repeating them, the authorities effectively said, “We made no mistakes.”

As it turns out, the authorities had an entirely free hand in the affair. They were free to reject negotiating with the terrorists by falsely claiming that the hostage-takers refused to communicate. They were free to under-report the number of hostages as 350, rather than the actual number of over 700, thereby diminishing the number of lives for which they — and the terrorists — would be held accountable. Killing terrorists appears to have been more important than saving hostages.

Hostage-taking incidents are typically directed at democratic governments. By seizing ordinary people, the terrorists put the government in an impossible position: It can either comply with their ‘ demands or kill innocent people in the process of taking out their attackers. It would be pointless for terrorists to seize hostages in a dictatorship, as dictators traditionally don’t value the lives of their citizens much more than those of, for example, insects.

As a result, I will go out on a limb by suggesting hostage-takings by terrorists are now a thing of the past — bombings perhaps, but no hostage taking. If hostage-takers are an illness to which only democracies are prone, then Russia appears to have built up an immunity.

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