Nord-Ost Victims File Theft Lawsuits

Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the purported theft of property belonging to the victims of the 2002 hostage crisis at Moscow's Dubrovka Theater, the Investigative Committee said Tuesday.

Chechen attackers seized the theater during a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost" on Oct. 23, 2002, leading to a 56-hour siege that ended with the deaths of 129 hostages, many of whom were killed after a botched rescue operation in which special forces pumped a knockout gas into the building.

Valuables belonging to the victims were stolen from the theater over the course of six weeks following the attack, the Investigative Committee said in a statement. No suspects were identified in the statement. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Igor Trunov, a lawyer for several of the Nord-Ost victims, said many of the stolen valuables were seized as evidence during the investigation of the terrorist attack and were never returned.

"We have uncovered 15 incidents in which ... valuables were listed improperly [by investigators]," Trunov said.

"We have asked that the valuables be returned but have received a reply that there were none."

The exact value of the stolen property is difficult to estimate because it includes various currencies and personal items of great sentimental value to the victims' survivors, Trunov said.

A spokesman for the Investigative Committee, which has taken over cases related to the Nord-Ost attack from the Prosecutor General's Office, declined to comment on whether any investigators were suspected in the theft.

The Nord-Ost victims have filed three lawsuits with Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky District Court in connection with the stolen property, Trunov said: two last week and another on Tuesday. Other lawsuits are in the works, he said.

The delay in filing the lawsuits was the result of difficulties in collecting information from plaintiffs in various regions, Trunov said.

The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on Nov. 20, he said.

After the crash of an Aeroflot Nord airliner in the Urals city of Perm in September that killed all 88 people on board, two policemen were arrested in October on suspicion of stealing valuables from the victims at the crash site.