Anti-racism campaigners have welcomed the tough sentences
handed down by a Moscow court against a group of serial killers as part of a recent government crackdown on ultranationalist groups that follows years of leniency.
Five defendants received life sentences for the chilling murder rampage that left as many as 27 non-Slavs dead, and an additional seven members of their gang, including one young woman, were sentenced to between 10 and 25 years in jail.
The defendants, mostly men in their 20s, belong to the National Socialist Society North, an openly neo-Nazi group outlawed last year and whose logo is a red-and-black stylized swastika.
Alla Gerber, the head of the Moscow-based Holocaust Foundation, welcomes the verdicts and tells RFE/RL that "until very recently, there was a complete silence"
"For years, law-enforcement agencies ignored all our calls, complaints, and appeals," Gerber says. "Even when murders were clearly committed on racial grounds, the perpetrators were charged with hooliganism or crimes of daily life that resulted in suspended sentences."
The gang members were convicted of killing migrants from Russia's Caucasus region and from Central Asia, as well as Africans and South East Asians, in vicious attacks coordinated by the gang's leader, Lev Molotkov.
Trail Of Destruction
The group's ideologue Maksim Bazylyev, nicknamed Adolf, committed suicide by slitting his wrists and neck in April 2009. His supporters claim he was killed by police.
In addition, the defendants were found guilty of strangling and decapitating one of their comrades, whom they suspected of being a police informant. The decapitation was videotaped and posted online.
While Molotkov had pleaded not guilty, the others had mostly admitted partial guilt for the killings, which took place in 2007 and 2008, saying they had been coerced into committing the crimes.
The youths were also convicted of plotting to bomb a suburban Moscow train.
The sentences, however, are just a small victory in the battle against Russia's powerful ultranationalist underground.
The increase in the number of jail sentences against racial offenders in recent years has led to a sharp drop in racially motivated murders.
But rights groups, while praising the government's efforts to curb racist violence, say years of impunity have allowed ultranationalist groups to grow into a well-organized and resilient force.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the head of the independent race crimes watchdog Sova, says the Nationalist Socialist Society North was able to operate for years unimpeded.
"The Nationalist-Socialist Society was a distinctive organization. It organized meetings and even tried to run in local elections; in short, it behaved as a legal Nazi organization," Verkhovsky says. "At the same time, members of this organization committed violent crimes, including murder. Even at the time, though, this was no secret. Then the organization split in 2007 and started withering. This is when law-enforcement agencies seriously tackled the Nationalist-Socialist Society."
Widespread xenophobia among the Russian population also continues to provide fertile ground for neo-Nazis and other ultranationalist groups.
Many Russians blame immigrants for stealing jobs and committing crimes. Migrant workers argue that they take on menial jobs that Russians are unwilling to perform and complain of rampant discrimination.
Alisher Toshmatov is a 24-year-old Uzbek immigrant working in Moscow, who survived a beating by skinheads last year.
"I haven't come across any skinheads since last year," Toshmatov says, "but I feel the general discriminating attitude. Some women say things like, 'This is Russia, not Uzbekistan,' but nothing more serious. I'm not planning to go home in the near future.”
The Nationalist-Socialist Society North is estimated to have hundreds of followers in Russia and, although officially disbanded, has maintained a strong presence on online social networks.
Over the past year, it has managed to turn out large numbers of supporters at various nationalist rallies, including a massive protest in Moscow in December following the killing of a nationalist youth by a Muslim suspect.
The rally, close to the Kremlin, erupted in violence and sparked a string of attacks against non-Slavs.
"These groups are active, they carry out serious training work, they publish reading material and organize mass rallies such as the so-called Russian March, during which xenophobic slogans are chanted. It's not only rhetoric," says Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. "They also carry out attacks on immigrants, brutal beatings, and murders, and plot terror attacks."
Rights watchdogs also warn that such groups have shifted tactics and are now increasingly targeting police, government officials, and anti-racist campaigners.
In April 2010, Eduard Chuvashov, a judge known for his tough verdicts against skinheads, was gunned down in a contract-style shooting outside his Moscow apartment.
In May, a member of an outlawed ultranationalist group got a life sentence for the January 2009 killing of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova. His accomplice and girlfriend was sentenced to 18 years in jail.
written by Claire Bigg based on RFE/RL Russian Service and agency reports