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Apartment 1999 blast battle for cash

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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003. Page 1

A Blast, Berezovsky, a Battle for Cash

By Anatoly Medetsky
Staff Writer When Lyudmila Dubinskaya heard a powerful blast tear through her apartment building before dawn, her first instinct was to throw herself over her young daughter to protect her from the flying glass and falling furniture.

The 1999 explosion in Volgodonsk -- one of a series of apartment building blasts that helped trigger the second war in Chechnya -- destroyed the front of Dubinskaya's building, killing 19 people.

Dubinskaya, now 46, survived the bombing together with her 10-year-old daughter, Lyuba, and son, Nikolai, 21. But since then she has been caught in a legal battle over how much compensation her family is entitled to for their lost property. Dubinskaya says she has received death threats and was once attacked by two strangers in her apartment.

But she is determinedly pressing on. She brought her case to Moscow this month, where she is living on an unexpected allowance from a Boris Berezovsky-backed charity.

"I borrowed money from my friends and relatives to come here," said Dubinskaya, who lives on welfare.

In a disappointing setback Monday, her latest appeal was rejected by the Moscow City Court last week during a trial of two men accused of accompanying the shipments of explosives used in the blast and two similar apartment building bombings in Moscow in 1999.

The ruling came as little surprise because the court invited only one survivor -- Dubinskaya -- to testify at the trial, said Igor Trunov, a lawyer representing Dubinskaya, two other Volgodonsk families and several people affected by the Moscow bombings.

"For some reason the court didn't want them to participate," Trunov said.

The court only ended up subpoenaing Dubinskaya because she had said she would complain if she were not invited, Trunov said. The other survivors who joined her suit appeared at the court on their own initiative, he said.

The Moscow City Court, which opened the trial Oct. 31, refused to comment. "We don't have a press center, and the judges don't usually talk to the press directly," said a spokeswoman who declined to give her name.

The court has not reimbursed Dubinskaya or any of the other Volgodonsk residents for their trip, lodging or living expenses -- contrary to normal practice, Trunov said.

She and the others in her group all but ran out of money by Nov. 4. In an effort to raise funds, Dubinskaya began to call up reporters who had interviewed her in the past. Finally, a television reporter in St. Petersburg said she knew someone who might be able to help. Dubinskaya got a call late at night on Nov. 4 from Berezovsky's New York-based Fund for Civil Freedoms. Berezovsky was granted asylum in Britain this year after Moscow requested his extradition on fraud charges -- a request that came after the businessman accused Russian secret services of staging the apartment bombings. "It was like a miracle!" exclaimed Dubinskaya, a tall, broad-shouldered woman wearing a home-knit wool sweater and denim overalls.

The fund paid for the group's hotel rooms from Nov. 4 to Nov. 15 and gave each of the three families 3,000 rubles ($100), Dubinskaya said. It later moved them to another hotel. Dubinskaya said the fact that Berezovsky was linked to the assistance did not bother her at all. "Victims of the terrorist act are above politics. I came here to stand up for the interests of my family," she said.

She said she and the other families from Volgodonsk sent part of the money home to support their loved ones and have had to spread out the rest because it was unclear whether more would come. Given this, Dubinskaya and Irina Polyanskaya, another woman from Volgodonsk, told the court last week that they were starving. Hunger combined with the stress of that day -- when they were supposed to testify -- drove up their blood pressure and caused them to ask for medical assistance in the courtroom, they said.

"My hands began to shake. Everything has been so nerve-racking, and I have no money," Dubinskaya said.

She said, though, that she had no choice but to stay and seek compensation to rebuild the shattered lives of her family. Her son, Nikolai, developed lung and kidney problems after the blast and, remembering the escape on that chilly morning, still sleeps wearing pants and a jacket. Lyuba also has lung problems, while Dubinskaya herself suffers from leukemia. Dubinskaya said her condition worsened after the blast and she had to give up her job buying dresses and leather jackets at Moscow wholesale markets for resale at home. "We had just bought new furniture and a car when everything collapsed," she said.

Volgodonsk officials said they did their best to help, offering families 50,000 rubles each and apartments in a building that was hastily constructed after the bombing. "We have offered housing, food and treatment to everybody," said Valery Slutsky, head of the social development department at Volgodonsk City Hall. Dubinskaya accepted the cash but refused the accommodation, saying it was unlivable.

The city then put her up in a hotel but forgot to pay her bill, which grew to 350,000 rubles in three years, Dubinskaya said.

During this time she took her case to court. Only in February, after a victorious ruling, was she able to move to a new temporary residence, a three-room apartment in a dormitory building.

Now Dubinskaya wants to leave the city, partly because of the memories of the bombing and partly because she fears for her life.

She said she has received death threats after she started digging into what happened to some 200 million rubles in donations set aside by city legislators to assist those affected by the bombing.

"People from my building have received nothing, but some officials have built mansions," Dubinskaya said.

She sued the special fund charged with distributing the money in 2000. Shortly after filing the suit, two men broke into her apartment at night and knocked her out with a blow to the forehead.

"The last thing I remember is them saying, 'Close your mouth or we'll kill you,'" Dubinskaya said.

Police were looking into the attack, she said.

Slutsky, whose department took part in running the fund, denied any connection between the fund and the attack. The money paid for "feeding and accommodating people after the explosion, not for the construction of cottages," he said.

Unfazed by the Moscow court's rejection, Dubinskaya said she will press on in her fight to win compensation. She is seeking 637,000 rubles from the government and plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. If she wins, she plans to buy an apartment near Moscow so she can have access to the best hospitals. "My children need treatment," she said.

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