MOSCOW, March 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The father of Khursheva Sultonova, a 9-year-old Tajik girl murdered in St. Petersburg two years ago, today publicly protested the lenient sentences handed to those responsible for her death.
The St. Petersburg Court yesterday sentenced seven teenagers accused of assaulting Sultonova to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 5 1/2 years.
Murder Charges Thrown Out
On March 22, a jury had convicted the teenagers on charges of hooliganism, which carries a lighter sentence than murder charges.
The father of the victim, Yunus Sultonov, told a press conference in Moscow today that he was shocked by the jury's ruling.
"My family and I are in shock," Sultonov said. "They killed my little girl, and the jury pitied the murderers, [ruling] that it was hooliganism. My daughter can't be brought back, but what will other children do?"
In February 2004, Sultonov, an immigrant worker from Tajikistan, his daughter Khursheva, and his 11-year-old nephew were attacked in St. Petersburg by a group of teenagers armed with baseball bats, chains, and knives.
"How can Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, send their children to school after such cases?"
Khursheva bled to death after being stabbed 11 times. Sultonov was badly beaten but survived, and his nephew managed to escape.
Roman Kazakov, who was 14 at the time of the attack and is considered a leader of the group, was handed the heaviest sentence -- 5 1/2 years. Kazakov had initially been charged with racially motivated murder, but the jury reduced this charge to hooliganism, citing lack of evidence.
The six others defendants received prison terms ranging from 1 1/2 to three years.
The jury's ruling and the subsequent sentence has sparked a public outcry. Human rights campaigners blamed the authorities for failing to punish racially motivated crimes and said the lenient sentence would encourage the growing neo-Nazi movement in St. Petersburg.
In a letter of protest made public at today's press conference, Tajik and Muslim representatives and members of the Public Chamber joined Sultonov in condemning the ruling as "an investigatory and judicial error."
The Public Chamber is a consultative group set up last year to monitor the work of parliament, and federal and regional bodies.
The letter urges President Vladimir Putin, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, the Supreme Court, and the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the case and seek "an adequate verdict."
"The murder was committed for racial motives, this was the version of the investigation, and it disappeared from the accusation." -- lawyer
The victims' lawyer, Natella Ponomaryova, told RFE/RL after the conference that she regrets that the murder charge was thrown out.
"I cannot be satisfied with the verdict of 'not guilty' for murder, since this was the leading charge," Ponomaryova said. "The murder was committed for racial motives, this was the version of the investigation, and it disappeared from the accusation."
Appeal On The Way
She said the defense would appeal the verdict.
Hate crimes have been on the rise in Russia, and particularly in St. Petersburg.
Nazar Mirzoda, the head of the Tajik community in St. Petersburg, told reporters that repeated attacks have caused parents from Central Asia and the Caucasus to fear for their children's lives.
"We really don't feel safe," Mirzoda said. "How can Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, send their children to school after such cases?"
St. Petersburg prosecutors report that 23 people died in racially motivated attacks in 2004, and 34 in 2005. According to police estimates, there are some 20,000 skinheads in the St. Petersburg region alone.