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Shopping Mall Tragedy Raises Concerns About Russian Response

41 Children Die in Fire After Being Trapped in Movie Theater

A man places flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the shopping mall fire in Kemerovo, at Manezhnaya square in central Moscow, Russia March 27, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

Forty-one children, some as young as 4 years old died in the colossal fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on Sunday. So far, the official death toll is 64 people; many are still missing.

The question now is: will families of the victims get justice in the wake of unimaginable loss?

The fire broke out on the fourth floor of a shopping mall, near a movie theatre full of children who were watching Sherlock Gnome, a cartoon, at around 4 p.m. According to Russia’s criminal investigation agency, the fire exits in the mall were blocked and a security guard switched off the alarm after the fire broke out. The doors of the movie theatre halls were also blocked, effectively locking dozens of kids inside.

It was gut-wrenching to see images of hundreds of people standing helplessly outside the shopping center for hours waiting for information about loved ones. A mother who lost three daughters said her husband had to fight to get information from officials. “My husband grabbed a police officer by the shirt and started to scream, “ … Will you tell us how many children died? … ”

Russia’s authorities started an investigation into the fire and arrested several people, including the security guard who allegedly turned off the fire alarm. An Investigative Committee spokesperson said on Tuesday that electric wiring malfunction caused the fire.

Local authorities have required families to sign nondisclosure agreements before they’re allowed access to bodies, prompting an outcry. On Tuesday morning, more than four thousand people, including victims’ relatives, gathered outside the local municipal government building, angered by the lack of information about the details of the tragedy. The governor of Kemerovo region referred to the protesters as “troublemakers” who are trying to destabilize the situation. That sends a terrible signal to a grieving public that has a right to know what happened.

The deaths of dozens of people, most of them children, is a horrific tragedy. When something like that happens, people are in shock and can only come together and mourn. It is ultimately the authorities’ duty to safeguard people’s rights, including right to life and access to justice and accountability. Will Russia’s authorities step up?

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