Russian Neo-Nazi Gang on Trial for Hate Crimes: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in Saint Petersburg

By Alexander Verkhovsky and Paul LeGendre

A prominent trial in Saint Petersburg risks going all but unnoticed, yet deserves all the attention it can garner because of its profound implications for Russia. Fourteen neo-Nazi youths are on trial for deliberately and systematically killing eight people, most of them not ethnic Russians. The victims range from a Jewish shop clerk to an internationally known ethnographer who served as a court expert on extremism and race studies. The verdict on the accused and, just as importantly, the overall conduct of the trial will tell us much about the Russian legal system's ability to respond to a surge in racially motivated attacks that bodes ill for the health of the multi-ethnic Russian state. Over the last several years, the government has failed to bring justice in hundreds of cases of hate crime murders throughout the country.

So far, this landmark trial in the country's second-biggest city is proving to be a showcase for neo-Nazi solidarity as much as a venue for examining the facts in the case. Friends and relatives of the accused routinely arrive at court sessions wearing Nazi paraphernalia, from belt buckles to swastika tattoos, according to observers from the human rights organization Memorial. Yet, lawyers representing victims say that repeated complaints to bailiffs about the intimidating atmosphere fall on deaf ears.

The trial is only about halfway through and there is still time to take back control of the courtroom. The next stage of the process, set to start in September, will be imperative, as it will focus on the high-profile murder of ethnographer and human rights activist Nikolai Girenko. He was killed in June 2004, at the age of 63. At the time, Girenko was providing expert consultations in a number of investigations and trial procedures, one of which involved the group "Schultz-88" that was closely affiliated with the group of neo-Nazis standing trial now. Testifying next month will be Valentina Uzunova, who is a former colleague of Girenko, an expert on neo-Nazis and victim of a 2007 street attack in reaction to her human rights work. When Uzunova's name was raised earlier in the trial, the courtroom erupted in jeers. Her treatment as she takes the witness stand and the court's response to any acts of intimidation in her regard will be an early sign of the trial's direction.

Why is this trial so crucial? For one, the sheer number of accused and their ability to carry out these violent attacks underscore the danger posed by neo-Nazi groups in Russia. The diversity of targets - from five countries and six ethnic groups - also suggests that nobody who appears to deviate from the "Slavic norm" is safe. This threat is especially relevant in St. Petersburg, Russia's renowned "cultural capital" and leading tourist destination with 2.3 million foreign visitors last year.

Secondly, the outcome of the trial will signal the Russian justice system's ability to send a strong message that it will not tolerate violent hate crimes against the country's minorities and those who speak out on their behalf. That important message has been largely muted.

Finally, the trial is taking place at a time when human rights defenders - including those who defend the rights of minorities - in Russia are facing extraordinary challenges. The July murder of Natalya Estemirova is just the latest in a series of politically motivated murders of those investigating human rights abuses in the North Caucasus Russian republic. Elsewhere, too, human rights defenders are working in bleak conditions. In July, police raided two offices of human rights groups in the Volga River city of Kazan. Earlier this month, in Petrozavodsk near the Finnish border, an unidentified attacker cut the face of an antifascist human rights activist well-known locally for his opposition to racism and xenophobia. No matter how local and uncoordinated, the net effect of these blows to human rights in Russia is to intimidate and stifle.

For all these reasons, we call upon the authorities to facilitate a fair and orderly trial in Saint Petersburg, and upon Russian and international press to assign reporters to cover this important trial. Russian prosecutors are to be praised for bringing such a complex case to trial and striking the most serious blow yet to the city's neo-Nazi movement. Let's not lose that momentum.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, and Paul LeGendre heads the Fighting Discrimination Program at Human Rights First in New York.