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In Moscow, a test case for government accountability

A lawsuit brought by survivors of the theater hostage crisis continues this week.

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In a cramped and dingy downtown Moscow courtroom this week, Nikolai Lyubimov is confronting his government in a way no Russian has before.

"I won't leave here until I get what is right and fair," says the elderly night watchman, who was among 800 people taken hostage by Chechen terrorists at a Moscow theater last October. "Someone has to answer for what happened."

He is one of 61 plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits against the Moscow city government stemming from the hostage crisis.

Each plaintiff seeks an average $1 million in compensation. The case has generated intense controversy because it is the first time any group of Russians has tried to make the government accountable for damages suffered during a security operation.

For the Kremlin, which pressured parliament last November to block an independent investigation into the affair, it is a potential political land mine.

"This kind of civil activity, to seek to make their state accountable in court, is a new tendency in Russia," says Andrei Ryabov, a political expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "In this case, we see people defining their interests through resistance to the state apparatus, and this could lead in many unpredictable directions."

Mr. Lyubimov, who described his ordeal on the witness stand last Friday, says he and the other hostages endured three days of terror, humiliation, and deprivation at the hands of the Chechen suicide squad that seized and held them in the theater. But the worst came when Russian special forces stormed the building after deploying a still-mysterious knockout gas to immobilize the terrorists, accidentally killing 129 of the hostages. Lyubimov said he was taken to the hospital in a coma, where doctors misidentified him and nearly dispatched him to the morgue.

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