Monday, 22 March 2010

Racism on the retreat in Russia

A knife attack on a Korean student prompted his embassy to issue a travel warning for visitors to Russia - but the overall picture surrounding crime against foreigners is showing slight signs of improvement.

An embassy source emphasised that although the 29-year-old's attackers had not been caught and a travel warning remains in force until May 31, they had no specific complaints against the Russian authorities.

"We are satisfied with the actions they have taken," he said. "In our judgement they are doing their best."

That attack in early March - and a fatal attack in Barnual last month - fed fears that Russia's radical racist fringe was preparing another string of attacks on foreigners in the run-up to Hitler's birthday on April 20.

But statistics show reports of race-hate crimes are on the decline for the first time in years - while courts are getting tougher on offenders.

Just this month, a Russian court handed down jail sentences of up to 23 years to nine members of the so-called White Wolves group for a series of murders. Other members of the gang got seven, 10, 15, and 17 years. 17-year-old Ivan Strelnikov got six and a half years in a correctional facility because of his age.

In February, a young man called Alexander Maslenikov, was handed an 11-year sentence for his 2007 stabbing of a Tanzanian in St. Petersburg. His victim survived, but six other people were given jail terms of at least two years.

And while suspended jail terms for attackers were common practice just a few years ago, today a killer who is found to have acted out of racial hatred can be put away from 25 years to life.
Human rights campaigners feel that these figures do reflect a genuine change in society, and aren't merely a symptom of minority groups feeling it is pointless to report racial attacks.

"The number of crimes became so high that they could no longer be ignored, and the out-of control situations like Kondopoga" - where riots broke out in 2006 after a fight between Russians and Chechens left two people dead - "forced society to address the problem," said Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and a prominent Public Chamber official. "Law enforcement bodies have become more aware of these crimes and have started tackling them."

They have realised, he said, that racial attacks pose a national security threat, causing potential retaliation in ethnic republics like Tatarstan, Yakutia, Bashkortistan and the north Caucasus.
According to figures from Brod's organization, 74 people were killed in racist attacks in 2009, a drop from 120 the previous year. Meanwhile, some 312 people were convicted - two of those locked up for at least 20 years, and 23 - for at least 10.

"The number of convictions has increased in the last year," he said, with about 40 long-term sentences being handed down every year.

The US State Department also noted in its latest human rights report that the number of reported hate crimes decreased in 2009.

New police measures and tougher legislation may be behind the improvement. Brod cited the 2008 creation of a special department within the Interior Ministry to target extremism as one of the developments.

Meanwhile, things changed in 2007 when amendments adding a new classification of racial or religious hatred to several articles in the criminal code were introduced. Semyon Charny, a hate crime expert at the bureau said: "Sentences of four-five years for murders committed by sane people - that just doesn't make any sense anymore. 11 years - that is more serious, 11 years is almost an entire life."

Problems remain, however. Little is being done to counter nationalist propaganda, and the laws that exist are often abused.

The 2002 law to counter extremism was broadened in 2007, allowing it to be applied widely to the opposition in general. This has led to rights activists and journalists being targeted for criticizing the government.

Brod says that adequate educational programs to address racist attitudes in schools and colleges have still not been implemented. And TV violence "isn't helping matters," he said.
Sociological polls show attitudes are not improving, and the level of hidden aggression is still high, he said.

Another dangerous tendency is that nationalist radicals don't just target individuals, but could plan full-scale terrorist attacks on mosques and synagogues.

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