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Russia: Prosecutors Demand Hate-Crime Investigation Into Attack On Singer

Kabardino-Balkaria Culture Minister Zaur Tutov (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) A famous singer and local culture official from Russia's North Caucasus region, Zaur Tutov, was beaten in Moscow over the weekend in what he described as a racially motivated attack. Moscow prosecutors initially opened an inquiry for bodily harm, ruling out racist motives for lack of evidence. Today, however, the Prosecutor-General's Office asked Moscow prosecutors to reclassify the charge as a hate crime.

MOSCOW, April 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Tutov said he was beaten by a group of 15 to 20 young men as he was picking up his daughter after a rehearsal of her Caucasian dance ensemble in Moscow on the evening of April 1.

The popular singer, who also serves as culture minister of his native Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, was hospitalized for a concussion and a fractured jawbone.

Although Tutov claimed his assailants had shouted: "Russia for Russians, get out of here!" a Moscow prosecutor declared on April 2 that there was no evidence the attack was racially motivated.

Surprise Decision

Today, however, Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office ordered local prosecutors to modify the charge to "infliction of serious bodily injuries motivated by ethnic, racial, and religious enmity."

The decision came as a pleasant surprise to both Tutov and rights groups, since even blatantly racist attacks are often treated as 'hooliganism' instead of being prosecuted as racial crimes, which carry severe penalties.

Despite Tutov's claim that his assailants shouted: "Russia for Russians, get out of here!" a Moscow prosecutor determined there was no evidence to consider the attack racially motivated.

The press service of the Prosecutor-General's Office told RFE/RL that its response had been delayed because it first needed to corroborate part of Tutov's testimony, which, the press service said, was difficult immediately after the attack.

But why is the Prosecutor-General's Office suddenly overruling local authorities by insisting that Tutov's beating be investigated as a racially motivated attack, after displaying so much reluctance to use this charge in the past?

New Era?

Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights activist, heads the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights. He says the prosecutors' decision suggests Russian authorities are finally awaking to the danger of the surge of nationalist feelings across the country.

"It is definitely a good sign," Ponomaryov said. "I see how Unified Russia is now saying things absolutely in favor of human rights. Let this problem, the 'fascization' of the country, become mainstream, let officials talk more about this. It is a serious problem. Before, the Kremlin used to flirt with these national extremists. But at some point they understood that they may be losing control over this process, that nationalists are becoming uncontrollable. This is exactly what rights campaigners were saying."

The attack on Tutov comes amid public anger over three lenient verdicts recently handed down to young men accused of assaulting ethnic minorities.

Aleksandr Koptsev in court on March 21 (TASS)

A Moscow court of March 27 sentenced 21-year-old Aleksandr Koptsev to 13 years in prison for stabbing at least eight men in a Moscow synagogue, but found him not guilty of inciting racial hatred.

On March 28, eight skinheads from Novosibirsk, in Siberia, were handed prison terms ranging from six to eight years for assaulting Tajik and Uzbek migrants. But once against, the court threw out charges they had incited ethnic hatred.

And on March 30, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced seven teenagers to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 5 1/2 years for killing a nine-year-old Tajik girl in 2004, finding them guilty only of "hooliganism."

Doubts Persist

Aleksandr Cherkasov, a senior member of the Memorial human rights group, welcomes the Prosecutor-General's Office's decision to investigate the attack on Tutov as a hate crime. But he doubts this signals a new political will to combat racial intolerance.

"At some point they understood that they may be losing control over this process, that nationalists are becoming uncontrollable." -- human rights activist Ponomaryov

"Considering that, after the soft sentences -- to put it mildly -- against the killers of the Tajik girl in St. Petersburg, against the skinheads in Siberia, and against Koptsev in Moscow, attention was drawn to this issue, here [prosecutors] needed to backpedal," Cherkasov said. "The Prosecutor's Office did what it had to do, at least to protect its image. But the question arises: is this a one-off step or is it actually a change? I would not interpret this as a tendency, unfortunately."

Tutov's beating was closely followed by another Moscow attack on a man from the Caucasus. In this case, too, an investigation was opened on charges of racially motivated attack.

Elkhan Mirzoyev, a Russian television producer from the Caucasus, was assaulted by a group of young men in the Moscow Metro on April 2. They allegedly told him he had no place in Russia, poured beer on him, and hit him on the head with beer bottles.

Epidemic Of Hate

Epidemic Of Hate

Yusuf Sultonov, whose 9-year-old daughter was beaten and stabbed to death in St. Petersburg on February 9, 2004 (TASS)

EXTREMISM ASCENDANT: More than half of Russians have xenophobic views, according to a report published in August 2005. In the report, rights groups say that -- despite progress in some areas -- racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism remain rife in Russia. But what worries watchdogs most are recent moves by nationalist-patriotic movements to form paramilitary groups....(more)


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