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(Un)Civil Societies Report: April 7, 2006

7 April 2006, Volume 7, Number 6
ORTHODOX CHURCH DEBATES MORALITY, HUMAN RIGHTS. (published on April 5, 2006) -- At the 10th World Council of Russian People under way in Moscow, a prominent Orthodox official said that the concept of Western human rights is not working in Russia. It should, he said, be substituted by Orthodox values -- "motherland, nation, and the security of one's neighbors." However, not everyone agrees.

The World Council of Russian People brings together Russians from around the world and led by the Moscow patriarch. On the council's agenda this year is the issue of human rights. The council is expected to announce the church's position on the matter.

Metropolitan Kirill, the Orthodox Church's main authority on interchurch and interfaith relations, on April 4 set the tone for the council. He denounced the concept of "moral autonomy."

Kirill said the Orthodox Church could not accept the mocking of the sacred, abortion, homosexuality, or euthanasia. All these, he said, are often defended as human rights.

The problems Russian society faces, he said, are due to the lack of a religion-based morality. "We should not shed any tears about rising xenophobia at a time when we open opportunities for a person, who is not restrained by any moral forces, to ravage sacred places, spit on his fatherland, and destroy his culture," Kirill said. "Such a person will go and kill someone else on the basis of race or faith. There is one single and indivisible morality."

Kirill denounced a "distorted vision of human rights," which he said has become prevalent in the West. He added that secularism is to be blamed for xenophobia and other vices of the Russian society."

On April 4, Patriarch Aleksy II supported Kirill's concern: "To what extent does this [Western] vision of human rights allow an Orthodox people to live in accordance with the faith it professes?"

Human Rights Concept Questioned

It is not the first time the Russian Orthodox Church has questioned the validity of the concept of universal human rights. On March 30, Metropolitan Kirill announced the church's plans to set up a center to deal with issues related to human rights and liberties.

He said the center would tackle the problems in the context of Russian national and church traditions. The Interfax news agency quoted him as saying "Russian civilization has nothing to do with it [Western concept of human rights.]"

There were, however, dissenting opinions at the assembly. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said on April 4 that the speeches at the assembly should not be taken as a new state policy condemning the West.

Allison Gill, the director of the Moscow office for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said vices such as xenophobia have little to do with adhering to a religion or secularism.

"I don't think it's fair to blame the problems he sees [Kirill] in Russia or the problems he sees in the West on human-rights law, which sadly enough isn't fully implemented in the West or in Russia," Gill said. Gill said that Russia has signed international agreements that oblige the state to protect human rights: "Human rights are universal and they are not granted by government but governments promised to protect them. The Russian government is a signatory to all major human-rights treaties, which means that human rights are an integral part of Russian law and not some foreign Western impost."

However, despite that, Russian officials often take notice of what the church says. And it isn't just human rights that is an integral part of Russian law. The Orthodox Church is considered the most significant body in Russian religious life. (Valentinas Mite)

AFRICAN STUDENT KILLED IN ST. PETERSBURG. (published on April 7, 2006) -- A Senegalese university student was slain in St. Petersburg early this morning in what investigators are considering a possible hate crime. The victim was gunned down as he and a group of fellow African students were leaving a nightclub. The killing comes as the city -- and Russia as a whole -- is experiencing a wave of racially motivated crimes.

St. Petersburg city prosecutor Sergei Zaitsev told journalists today that while an official motive has yet to be established, the 28-year-old victim's ethnicity is being considered as a factor in the crime.

"An investigation has begun according to Article 105, Part 2, Paragraph L [of the Russian Criminal Code], that is murder out of ethnic and racial hatred," Zaitsev said. "I'd like to point out that the motive has not yet been determined, but considering the fact that the victim was African, we deliberately assigned a higher degree [to the case] in order to give our work the right direction."

Lamzar Samba was a fifth-year student at St. Petersburg's Communications Institute who belonged to African Unity, a human rights organization that represents the interests of the city's African emigre community.

Samba was shot dead around 6 a.m. as he and a group of African students were leaving a club near the city center where they were celebrating their institute's faculty day.

One of the students in the group, Michel Panabian, told RFE/RL's Russian Service today that they were heading toward a metro station when Samba was attacked from behind.

"We were walking down the street and there was a man who was walking behind us," Panabian said. "He fired a shot. He hit one of us and the guy died. After he fired, I turned back and I saw him, but he left immediately. I can only describe the way he was dressed."

The Associated Press quoted the city's deputy prosecutor, Andrei Lavrenko, as telling NTV television that a hunting gun decorated with a swastika was found at the crime scene.

Russian television broadcast images of the scene, and NTV reported that the man was shot in the head, according to the AP.

Racist violence is a mounting problem in Russia. Members of ultranationalist and other groups regularly harass or attack Africans, Asians, and non-Slavic citizens from the Caucasus or former-Soviet Central Asia.

Today, a group calling itself the Party of Freedom welcomed the killing in St. Petersburg, saying on its website that "the clean-up of the city continues."

Desire Defoe, who heads the African Unity organization to which Samba belonged, expressed the helplessness many foreign citizens feel.

"I very much hope that the [Russian] state will know what to do," Defoe said. "We can't tell the [Russian] state what should be done [to protect] foreign citizens, this is ridiculous. What advice can be given today? Even the police told us to walk in groups, not to be alone. Did that help? So, what are we supposed to do, sit at home?"

The French news agency AFP cited an independent study by the nongovernmental organization Sova as stating that six people have been killed and 79 injured in more than 40 racist attacks around the country this year.

According to Sova, 30 of the attacks and five deaths this year have taken place in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, 14 people have been injured and one killed in racially motivated attacks, not including today's killing.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on April 7 issued a statement expressing condolences to Samba's relatives and friends following the killing.

However, rights groups argue that the authorities in Russia generally do little to combat such crimes.

"I don't think the authorities are doing enough," said Allison Gill, director of the Moscow office for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The incident is very sad but its also very predictable in the climate today. Clearly there is a problem that goes beyond individual sorts of acts of violence. Of course, the perpetrators are the ones who carry ultimate responsibility, but the government need to look at this problem more systematically. This is a crime about what Russia stands for today."

In addition, Gill says the authorities' tendency to blame such attacks on fascists merely serves to obscure the issue.

"Historically, fascism was associated with World War II and of course the Soviet Union was a very powerful participant in the war and was critical of the defeat, so the language of antifascism I think comes from there. But in today's rhetoric, you know, I'm not sure how meaningful it is any more, when I think they need to look at their own actions today."

Gill notes that some Russian politicians promote the idea that "Russia is for Russians" only. And such statements, she said, can help fuel a climate in which people who are different are targeted in Russia. (Valentinas Mite)

PROSECUTORS SEEK HATE-CRIME PROBE INTO ATTACK ON SINGER. (published on April 3) --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.

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.

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?

Lyov 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 United 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.

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.

"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. (Claire Bigg)

PUBLIC OUTRAGED BY SENTENCES IN TAJIK GIRL'S SLAYING. (published on March 31) -- A court verdict handing short prison terms to a group of teenagers accused of being involved in the killing of a Tajik girl has sparked public outrage. The father of the slain girl has joined members of the Tajik and Muslim communities and rights advocates in filing a letter of protest to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials.

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.

"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.

Public Outcry

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 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.

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. (Claire Bigg)

A TIMELINE OF RECENT RACIAL INCIDENTS. Below, RFE/RL presents an annotated timeline of racially motivated incidents in Russia since the February 9, 2004, stabbing of 9-year-old Khursheda Sultonova in St. Petersburg.

March 25, 2006: A 9-year-old mixed-race girl beaten and stabbed in the face and neck in St Petersburg.

March 24, 2006: A 34-year-old Ghanaian man beaten up in the Kolpino suburb of St. Petersburg.

March 22, 2006: A Russian court finds eight defendants guilty of "hooliganism" in connection with the 2004 stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg. A ninth defendant is acquitted. The verdicts are described by activists as "a moral catastrophe."

February 5, 2006: A man from Mali was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg.

January 11, 2006: A 20-year-old skinhead burst into Moscow's main synagogue and stabbed eight people with a hunting knife before he was wrestled to the floor and disarmed. Twenty-one-year-old Moscow resident Aleksandr Koptsev was sentenced to 13 years in prison on March 27.

January 9, 2006: Several Sudanese citizens, graduates of the Voronezh Medical Academy, attacked. Voronezh has seen numerous racially motivated attacks in recent years, including the deaths of two foreign students. In 2005, citizens of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, China, Peru, and Rwanda reported attacks.

December 25, 2005: Kanhem Leon, a student from Cameroon, is stabbed to death by skinheads in St Petersburg.

November 13, 2005: Timur Kacharava, an antifascist philosophy student and musician, is stabbed to death by skinheads in St Petersburg.

October 9, 2005: A student from Peru is killed in Voronezh on October 9, 2005. A group of about 20 youngsters attacked the 18-year-old student and his friends.

March 28, 2005: Assailants in St. Petersburg attack Angolan, Bangladeshi, and Chinese students in three separate weekend incidents.

January 14, 2005: Two rabbis attacked and beaten in downtown Moscow.

October 14, 2004: A 20-year-old Vietnamese student is stabbed to death by skinheads in St Petersburg.

June 21, 2004: Nikolai Girenko, one of Russia's leading experts on racism and xenophobia, is shot dead through the door of his apartment.

February 9, 2004: A gang of teenaged skinheads stabs to death a 9-year-old Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultonova, in St Petersburg.

(compiled by RFE/RL)