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Russian Courts Crack Down on Nationalists

  • James Brooke

A demonstrator holds a portrait of slain reporter Anastasiya Baburova during a memorial rally in downtown Moscow, held in memory of rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Baburova, who were shot in broad daylight on a street near the Kremlin two years ago,

A demonstrator holds a portrait of slain reporter Anastasiya Baburova during a memorial rally in downtown Moscow, held in memory of rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Baburova, who were shot in broad daylight on a street near the Kremlin two years ago,

Russian courts are convicting violent nationalists and sentencing them to jail.

A Moscow court gave the maximum sentence of life in prison to an ultranationalist convicted of murdering a journalist and human rights lawyer a few blocks from the Kremlin two years ago.

In addition to sentencing Nikita Tikhonov to life, the court also sentenced his girlfriend, Yevgenia Khasis, to 18 years in jail. Both were members of a far right group, Russky Obraz, or Russian Image.

Russian political columnist Konstantin Von Eggert said the tough sentences are part of a Kremlin effort to curb the ultranationalists.

"These people are really thugs. These people were really terrorists. That is really a minority that is ready to go as far as that. These people hate Putin. They hate Medvedev. They hate the liberals. They hate the communists," said Von Eggert.

In the last five years, officially registered hate murders have nearly quadrupled, hitting 548 killings in 2009. In December, a nationalist rally outside the Kremlin walls disintegrated into a melee, with police and attacks on migrant workers from the Russian Caucasus and Central Asia.

After the United States, Russia is the largest magnet country for migrant workers in the world.

After the nationalist riot, President Dmitry Medvedev warned that ultranationalism is a security threat to the state. He defended the multiethnic nature of the nation historically ruled from the Kremlin - first Russia’s Czarist Empire, then the Soviet Union.

Now a judicial crackdown has started against Russian nationalist extremists.

In St. Petersburg on Thursday, a court sentenced 10 members of an ultranationalist group to jail terms ranging from three to nine years for attacks on 12 people, largely ethnic minorities. In the attacks, two people were killed. Eight of the attacks were filmed and posted on the Internet.

Also on Thursday, a St. Petersburg detective forwarded to prosecutors a report on two nationalists accused of bombing more than 30 homes and workplaces of Caucasian and Central Asian workers.

In Moscow, Vladimir Markin of the Prosecutors Investigative office said that the investigation of the double murder is widening to look for other accomplices.

In this case, Stanislav Markelov, the human rights lawyer, had just come out of a press conference when he was shot on a sidewalk. Anastasia Baburova, the journalist, was killed trying to defend him.

Markelov worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, and with Natalya Estemirova, a human rights campaigner, both of whom were killed in separate attacks. The perpetrators of both killings have yet to be convicted. Baburova worked for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper that has had several reporters, including Politkovskaya, murdered.

Baburova's killer was ordered to pay her parents the equivalent of $75,000 in damages. Baburova's parents plan to set up a charitable fund to aid students who study at the journalism department of Moscow State University. Baburova was at the university when she was killed at the age 25.

But nationalism seems to growing in popularity in Russia.

During the trial, several jurors excused themselves, citing their political beliefs.

The vote for conviction was seven to six - one vote short of an acquittal.

In public opinion polls, about half of respondents agree with the nationalist slogan - "Russia for Russians."

After the nationalist riot outside the Kremlin last December, all callers to one state-run radio call-in show defended the nationalists.

In an ominous sign of the times, a Moscow newspaper reported recently a surge in sales of aluminum baseball bats. Four bats are now sold for every baseball in Moscow, a city not known for its love of the American game.

But baseball bats are the weapon of choice for skinhead [far right, ultranationalist] gangs.

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