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Xenophobia on the Rise in Russia

(Washington, DC--April 23, 2004) Russia has witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of hate-crimes and violent attacks committed against immigrants and foreign students over the past several years. Speaking at RFE/RL earlier this week, Nickolai Butkevich, the Research and Advocacy Director for USCJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, discussed this disturbing trend towards xenophobia in Russian society as well as the means for prosecuting and preventing hate crimes.

Butkevich said that the blame for these acts generally falls on local "skinhead" and extremist groups. He emphasized the vital role of the media and non-governmental organizations in affecting the situation, noting that "strong media attention spurs politicians to get police activated." Unfortunately, Butkevich said, the government interest "comes in cycles" which correspond to the level of media attention, as with the response to the February 11, 2004 skinhead murder in St. Petersburg of a nine-year old Tajik girl.

Butkevich cited several problem areas in combating racism and xenophobia, singling out the courts for a "lack of transparency" and lenient sentences by judges, who will often suspend a sentence even when the accused is found guilty of assault. He also said the "passivity of the Russian public" makes it possible in many of Russia's regions for "close ties between the police and skinheads [to continue]."

Butkevich noted that the Prosecutor's office and senior security and law enforcement personnel "often treat these crimes as ordinary," or simple acts of "hooliganism" by "soccer fans" and various youth. He also said that Articles 105 and 111 of the Russian criminal code, which would allow such crimes to be prosecuted as murders and assaults on the basis of "national hatred," have only been invoked in two court cases -- "both [ending] in failure." On the other hand, Butkevich stated that the "militia were doing a much better job" in Moscow and some other regions since 2002, with a string of recent arrests and crackdowns on skinhead organizations.

Butkevich described the launch of a USCJ project in Russia, funded by the European Union, whose "main goal is publicizing these events" by setting up a network of local monitors in 73 regions to supplement at-times incomplete coverage of hate crimes by local media. The monitors will, as part of the three-year project, track and report on hate crimes as well as any prosecutions for hate crimes. Butkevich stressed that that this kind of NGO pressure, combined with more effective media coverage, will help slow and possibly reverse the current rise in the number of hate crimes in Russia.

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