Relatives of victims of the school siege react after hearing the sentence given to Nur-Pashi Kulayev on Friday. ((Sergei Grits/Associated Press))

A Russian court handed a life sentence Friday to the only-surviving hostage-taker involved in the deadly 2004 Beslan school siege.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, 25,was found guilty of terrorism and murder in the three-day siege, duringwhich 331 people — more than half of them children — died.

"[Kulayev] deserves the death sentence but because the Russian government has introduced a moratorium on carrying out death sentences, I sentence him to life imprisonment," Judge Tamerlan Aguzarov told the court in Vladikavkaz.

Families called for death sentence

Families of the victims shouted and cried as the verdict was read out while Kulayev looked on from behind a bullet-proof glass wall.


Nur-Pashi Kulayev was the only surviving member of the group behind the deadly siege. ((Sergei Grits/Associated Press))

"The ultimate sentence should have been passed," said Aneta Gadiyeva, whose child died at the school.

"We believe that this was a particularly evil act and it should have been punished accordingly."

Many mothers of the children who died at the school were on hand for the verdict, dressed in black and carrying signsthat read,"There is no forgiveness of the authorities who let Beslan happen."

"He received the punishment he deserved," Taimuraz Chedzhemov, a lawyer for victims' group Voice of Beslan, told reporters.

However, Chedzhemovadded that there are still many unanswered questions about "who is to blame for the tragedy that happened."

Kulayev said at his trial that charges against him were "fairy tales." The judgerejected Kulayev's defence that he had been forced into the hostage-taking and that he had never threatened or harmed any of the hostages.

The verdict came at the end of a year-long trial.

Only hostage-taker to survive

The school siege began on Sept. 2, 2004, when 32 heavily armed militants took more than 1,200 hostages at the school in southern Russia.

They demanded that Russian troops pull out of Chechnya. Duringthe siege, they rigged the building with bombs and refused tolet their hostagesdrink or usetoilets.

The siege ended in mass confusion, with Russian troops raiding the building as thebombs detonated and the gunmen fired on fleeing hostages.

Kulayev wasthe only hostage-taker to survive. Hewas found hiding under a truck not far from the school after the siege ended, andnarrowly avoided being lynched by a mob.