Racial Tensions High as Trial Draws to Close
- By Kristina Mikulova
- Sep. 28 2009 00:00
A man in a black mask pumped five bullets into Rasul Khalilov, an 18-year-old Azeri student, as he left his apartment building in northern Moscow earlier this month, killing him on the spot.
But this was no ordinary racist attack.
Khalilov, an economics student at the Moscow Institute of Economics and Culture, was exiting his apartment building near the Otradnoye metro station on the morning of Sept. 3 to go to court. He was on trial on charges of carrying out racially motivated attacks on white Russian youth as part of a group that the media and rights activists have dubbed the Black Hawks.
The trial, which is expected to end this week in the Dorogomilovsky District Court, marks an unusual twist in a city where racist violence occurs all too often against people from the Caucasus, as well as from Central Asia, Asia and Africa. The case could cause simmering tensions to erupt.
Khalilov was on trial with six other Caucasus natives accused of badly injuring two Russian teenagers, 16-year-old Pavel Novitsky and 19-year-old Fyodor Markov, in an attack that carries the hallmarks of skinhead violence against minorities. The attackers jumped Novitsky and Markov in the Moscow metro on May 6, 2008, beating the two and stabbing them repeatedly with knifes. One attacker shot Markov in the head with a pneumatic gun. During the assault, the attackers bellowed “Allah Akbar!” (Allah is great!) and “Death to the Russian swine!”
Prosecutors say Khalilov filmed the attack on his cell phone camera and posted the video on the Internet.
The seven suspects, who have admitted that they were involved in the attack but deny that it was racially motivated, were swiftly detained several days after the assault. Two are in custody, while the others, including Khalilov, were released after signing a pledge not to leave Moscow during the investigation and trial. The defendants have been charged with hooliganism and inflicting grave injuries and face up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors decided to drop a charge that the attack was racially motivated, angering ultranationalists who call the trial a showcase of how authorities give lax treatment to aggressive ethnic minorities. Incidentally, prosecutors often refuse to press the same charge against ultranationalists accused of assaulting minorities.
Qualifying an attack as racially motivated increases the maximum punishment.
Defense lawyer Sergei Loginov said he expected his clients to be sentenced to two to five years in prison, much less than the maximum 15 years that they face, and he insisted that they did not belong to a group called the Black Hawks.
“I have said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no such thing as an organized group popularized by the media as the Black Hawks that planned and carried out attacks. The defendants came together on a single occasion,” he told The Moscow Times.
Lawyers for the victims of the attack could not be reached for comment.
It remains unclear whether the victims were skinheads, although senior members of the Caucasus community say the two teens belonged to a nationalist group.
Police have detained no suspects in Khalilov’s murder, and a nationalist group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The trial started in May amid a heated public debate about hooliganism and xenophobia across the country.
In the meantime, dozens of members of nationalist groups have gathered outside the courtroom for every hearing. Ultranationalists have warned in Internet forums that a mild sentence would provoke a new wave of urban violence, this time perpetrated by aggressive Caucasus youth against ethnic Russians.
With Khalilov’s murder, the tension among the nationalists reached a climax.
News of the murder broke on the web site of the radical Movement Against Illegal Immigration, or DPNI, hours before it was reported by news agencies. Alexander Belov, DPNI ‘s former leader, who was recently convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and sentenced to six months of probation, denied any connection to the killing in a telephone interview.
The group that has claimed responsibility, the Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists, said it did not expect a fair verdict in the trial and had acted to punish the “Caucasus gang” that “sold narcotics in Moscow’s universities and attacked Russian youth.”
“Now we have become judges in our country: No power structure can forbid us to defend the Russian nation,” it said in a statement posted on a nationalist web site a week after the killing.
In addition to Khalilov’s murder, the group has claimed responsibility for several racially motivated killings in Moscow over the past two years, including the shooting deaths of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova in January. The group said its members also killed two natives of Tajikistan, tossing the severed head of one of the victims into a garbage container near the administration offices for Moscow’s Mozhaisky district. No suspects have been detained in any of these cases.
Contact information could not be found for the group.
Dmitry Dyomushkin, head of the Slavyansky Soyuz, an umbrella organization for nationalists, was evasive when asked whether the Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists had any link to Khalilov’s killing.
“There are dozens of these combat groups in Russia. Maybe the Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists did it, maybe not,” he said. “For these groups, it is key to operate in secret. Even if I knew what had happened, I couldn’t tell you.”
But Alexander Verkhovsky, who tracks nationalism and ethnic violence at the Sova think tank, voiced doubt about the claim. “It is suspicious that their statement went public so late, a week after the murder,” he told The Moscow Times.
At least 87 people were killed and 378 were wounded last year in racially motivated attacks across the country, according to Sova figures. Eighty-six people were killed in 2007.
Alexander Brod, a human rights activist and member of the Public Chamber, said the government bears blame for the violence. “The state, or rather, the government is doing very little to uproot these attitudes. It simply isn’t the issue of the day,” he said.
Brod also pointed to moderate nationalism advocated by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, saying that at times, Russian national interests are advanced at the expense of non-Russian ethnic groups.
Even before last year’s military conflict with Georgia, Moscow was rocked by anti-Georgian hysteria, marked by official crackdowns on Georgian businesses and Georgian migrants working in the capital. Strong anti-migrant sentiments also loomed in the closure last summer of Cherkizovsky Market, which provided jobs for thousands of people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, China and Vietnam.
Politicians often ride on a wave of nationalism, which provides an easy source of political capital, analysts say. “Politicians seeking to boost their popularity ratings are creating tension by blaming immigrants for the surge in unemployment and crime, especially in times of crisis,” said Shamil Osmanov, a member of the Russian Congress of the Caucasus Peoples, a public group that protects the rights of the Caucasus community.
He said the identity of Khalilov’s killers was anybody’s guess. “Khalilov could have been slain by security services who sought to provoke and then crack down on neo-Nazis,” he said.
Caucasus natives seem to be bearing the brunt of ethnically motivated hatred. A poll last month indicated that 29 percent of Russians dislike Caucasus natives, while Central Asians placed second, with 6 percent of respondents voicing dislike for them. The national poll of 1,600 Russians had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points and was carried out by state-run VTsIOM.
Some human rights activists, like Semen Charny of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, believe that the Caucasus defendants on trial were driven by a desire to fight skinheads.
One suspect’s testimony in court gives leverage to this explanation.
Before the defendants jumped the two students, one of them — Grant Arutyunov — contacted them on the social networking web site Vkontakte.ru pretending to be a white Russian named Sergei Kazakov, another suspect, Chingiz Arifullin, told the court last week. He arranged to meet on the pretext that he needed help against a group of Caucasus natives who were harassing him, Arifullin said.
Belov, of the DPNI, dismissed the notion that the defendants were carrying out a vendetta against neo-Nazis and skinheads as a poor excuse for the attack. “If this is true, we might as well say that Osama bin Laden is fighting American imperialism and fascism,” he said.
Though dismissing Belov’s comment, Osmanov said the defendants did deserve punishment. “A hooligan is a hooligan, whether he is a Caucasus native or a Russian,” he said.