Moscow, 25 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In February 2004, a group of teenagers armed with chains, metal rods, and knives attacked 9-year-old Khursheda Sultonova near her home in St. Petersburg.
They stabbed her to death and savagely battered her father and her 11-year-old cousin. Yesterday, eight teenagers are on trial for the beating and stabbing of Khursheda Sultonova.
The hearings, which are expected to last until December, are closed to the public since half the defendants are minors.
The trial is taking place amid a wave of attacks on foreigners. The latest came earlier this month, when a group of young men beat to death an 18-year-old Peruvian student in the city of Voronezh.
Human rights groups are sounding the alarm, saying imbedded xenophobic feelings are translating into increasingly violent attacks on foreigners. In August, the Moscow Bureau For Human Rights released a report saying half of Russians questioned expressed support for nationalist slogans such as "Russia for Russians."
The attacks have frightened many foreign students into leaving Russia. Ali Nassor, a Tanzanian man who works as a freelance journalist in St. Petersburg, said he no longer feels safe on the streets.
He told RFE/RL that Africans in St. Petersburg are systematically assaulted. "I don’t think there is a single African who hasn’t been attacked, and I’m no exception," he said. "I am not afraid, I go where I need to go, when I want to. But this does not mean that I am safe. [An attack] can happen any time, during the day, at night, in a shop, or in the metro."
Xenophobic crimes are indeed sadly common in Russia. Since the beginning of the year, more than a dozen foreigners have been killed.
Last year in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, just to name a few cases, a Georgian man was stabbed to death, a Vietnamese student was killed, and an Uzbek migrant worker was beaten and stabbed to death.
In most cases, witnesses described the assailants as "skinheads." More often than not, however, such attacks are filed not under racial crimes, which carry stiff penalties, but under "hooliganism."
Only one of the eight teenagers accused of beating Sutonova has been charged with murder. The others face charges of hooliganism.
Local authorities have also described the killing in Voronezh as a mere act of hooliganism since a Russian student was also injured in the attack.
The authorities’ reluctance to fight ultranationalist groups has long angered human rights groups. Yurii Vdovin, an expert on hate crimes at the Citizens' Watch human rights group in St. Petersburg, accuses the authorities of knowingly encouraging racially motivated attacks.
"These small mobs feel impunity and confidence that the authorities will let them off the hook," Vdovin told RFE/RL. "The authorities keep them because they very successfully channel people’s dissatisfaction at their social and economic situation towards the idea that non-Russians are to blame. This is a well-known method, it has been used in many countries in various periods. But it can spin out of control."
Yevgenii Ikhlov, an activist at the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, agrees that the Russian government has an interest in turning a blind eye to hate crimes. Nationalism and hatred of foreigners, he said, is the only ideology the current government is able to offer to Russians.
"Xenophobia has become a para-governmental ideology," Ikhlov said. "The government uses this because it is the only thing, apart from the war on international terrorism, that unites the government and society. The government is no longer a protector, a provider, a guarantor of law and order, or anything."
According to official figures, there are 10,000 skinheads in Russia. But human rights groups and experts contend the real figure is more than five times higher.
The Moscow Bureau For Human Rights says skinheads were responsible for most of the racially motivated attacks and killings this year.