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.
The suits filed by survivors and families of the dead allege that authorities failed to organize prompt and efficient medical help for the hostages after their release, that security services withheld information from doctors about the type of gas used, and that other errors caused needless death and suffering. Many of the plaintiffs say it is not money they seek, but the truth. "I just want to know the name of the scoundrel who ordered that gas be used," says Alla Alyakina. "Why did my husband have to die like that?"
Lyubimov says the gas left him half-paralyzed and unable to work. "The alternative I face now is whether to buy food or medicines; I cannot afford both," he said. "No doctor knows how to treat me. They still have no idea what kind of gas was used, and their diagnoses are useless."
Under Russia's 1998 antiterrorism law, security services cannot be sued, and local governments are liable for any damages occurring during terrorist acts. The Moscow government has already paid an average 100,000 rubles (about $3,100) to each hostage's family in the incident. Authorities insist this is in line with previous settlements.
After a wave of terrorist apartment blasts that killed more than 200 Muscovites in 1999, the city doled out 20,000 rubles (about $625) for each victim. The families of six people killed in a car bombing near a McDonald's restaurant last September received 40,000 rubles each.
But the lawyer for most of the plaintiffs in the theater hostage case, Igor Trunov, says the city's settlement delivered neither adequate compensation nor justice to the victims. "We have no specific accusations against the Moscow government; it didn't commit the terrorist act," he says. "But we want the people who are guilty of sloppy organization in assisting victims to be made responsible. One has to wake up our government."
Mr. Trunov says he has obtained a videotape shot by the Chechen hostage-takers that graphically illustrates the horrors endured by the hostages. But presiding judge Marina Gorbacheva has refused to allow the tape into evidence. "The court is in the pocket of the Moscow government; it is not independent," says Trunov, noting that judges' salaries in Russia are paid directly by authorities - a situation that reflects the country's slow pace in separating the judicial and executive branches of government.
Some experts worry that the mass lawsuit has caught the Russian state and court system unprepared, and a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs could spur a legal crisis. "No one has ever done this in Russia before, and there is no mechanism to implement such a judgment," says Pavel Astakhov, a leading trial lawyer. "The result of this precedent will be that victims of terrorism and military conflicts will begin suing the state and demanding millions of dollars in compensation. The whole picture is sad."
Others say a court ruling for the victims could shake up Russia's state-dominated political culture by showing that individuals can stand up to their government and win.
"This case can lead to identifying those who are responsible for what happened, and that would be something quite new in this country," says Mara Polakova, chair of the Expert Law Council, an independent human rights group. "There are many Russians suffering as a result of the war in Chechnya and other security operations, and the fact this trial is taking place gives them all hope," she says. "At the very least, if there should be an expensive verdict for the state, it may force the authorities to be more responsible in future."
• Olga Podolskaya in Moscow contributed to this report.