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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trial of Skinhead Is Theater of the Absurd

The courtroom is filled with skinny young men with shaved heads, combat fatigues and black boots. The defense attorney is a non-lawyer who wants the case moved to the United States. The victim is nowhere to be found.

That was the scene Friday at the on-again, off-again trial of a nationalist newspaper editor charged with beating up a black U.S. Marine at the Gorbusha electronics market in the Fili neighborhood in May.

Hearings have dragged on since September at the Dorogomilovsky district court on Studencheskaya Ulitsa near Kievsky Station, but only one witness, a reporter who interviewed the suspect soon after the attack, has testified so far. Running to form, Friday's hearing was taken up not with testimony about what happened, but with requests that ranged into the absurd.

At one point, defendant Semyon Tokmakov demanded that since the Marine is apparently in China, the trial should be moved there or America. "Let's have the hearings in America or in China," Tokmakov said. "If Mohammed does not go tothe mountain, the mountain should go to Mohammed."

Tokmakov is charged with inciting racial and national hatred with use of violence, a charge that could bring up to five years in prison under Article 282 of the Russian criminal code.

He was arrested one day after the attack on the Marine, a member of the guard detachment at the U.S. Embassy who was strolling the CD stands with an embassy translator who was also African American.

Tokmakov, a security guard and publisher of the nationalist newspaper Russian Target, bragged about beating up black people to a TV 6 television crew that arrived at the market just a few minutes after the attack.

"When a black bites a white person, I've heard, a white person turns black," said Tokmakov who called himself Boos and whose knuckles at the time of the interview still bore deep fresh scratches. "Look, one just bit my hand," he said on the tape. "Twice. Anyway, blacks bite me quite often, and almost always on my fists."

The police said that Tokmakov and three other men with shaved heads attacked the Marine and the translator. The Marine suffered minor bruises and lost two of his front teeth.

But Tokmakov, 23, was the only one arrested. He was originally charged with inciting racial hatred and with hooliganism, but the hooliganism charges were later dropped.

His defenders said it was unclear whether an attack took place altogether. They thought up some sort of racism. We are talking about a tiny squabble here. So what if two young guys exchange punches?" said Vladimir Kuvshinov, Tokmakov's chief defense representative.

Nina Dyomina, the senior prosecutor for the case, said that though the Marine has not come to court, his written complaint and statements to investigators were enough to prosecute. Judge Alexander Nechaev said that the U.S. Embassy told him that the Marine was at first sent back to the United States and is now stationed in China.

David Firestein, deputy spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, declined to provide information about the Marine, citing privacy restrictions. The Marine is referred to in the court proceedings only as "Jefferson." The U.S. Embassy declined further comment on the case.

The man making most of the defense arguments is Kuvshinov, a friend of Tokmakov's who says he works as a defense attorney but has no legal education. His trial strategy has included sending telegrams to U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin asking for justice for his client in the name of Russian-American friendship and world peace.

"Yeah, why should a black Marine be above the law?" he said. "When the American Congress calls President Clinton in for a court hearing, he shows up, why cannot we summon the Marine?"

But the judge declined to shift the case to be heard overseas, a situation not provided for under the Russian law. He also denied to free Tokmakov on bail.

"My son turns out to be a victim here. Why is this black American hiding?" said Tatiana Tokmakova, the defendant's 62-year-old mother who traveled from the small town of Rybinsk in Yaroslavl region for the court hearings. She said if her son "were to hit a Russian guy in his face, he would be out of jail in 15 days, but now, after so many months in jail, he has turned into a skeleton."

Since May, Tokmakov has been held in the notorious Butyrki jail with 90 other inmates in a cell built for 30 so that they have to sleep in shifts. She said her son is a poet and writes novels, and sends her long letters from jail, sometimes as often as twice a day.

"But he does not get my letters, and I am afraid he has contracted tuberculosis. He is coughing so much," added Tokmakova who had spent the hours of the court hearing staring at her son locked up in the courtroom's cage, blinking her reddened eyes.

Tokmakov's case has attracted attention from Russian nationalists. The Congress of Russian Communities, a nationalist group, signed a letter asking the judge to free Tokmakov and saying it will be responsible for his court appearances.

Alexander Lobkov and at least five other members of his National-Democratic Party, a Moscow-based political organization that states as its goal the preservation of Russia's racial and genetic purity, were also in the courtroom. The party has retained two professional lawyers to defend Tokmakov. Sometimes, they object to motions made by his other representative, Kuvshinov.

"Our main goal here is to make sure that this case does not establish a legal precedent of prosecution under Article 282 of the criminal code," Lobkov said.

A group of young men, some dressed in fatigues, some in high boots, some with shaved heads, have been attending the trial, often snickering in the back. They say they are not skinheads or neo-Nazis, but just want racial purity for Russia.

Despite the odd aspects of the trial, both the defense and the prosecutors said that Tokmakov's case had the potential to establish precedent as one of the first under the new part of the criminal code establishing punishment for inciting racial hatred.

Two young women, a sister of another Russian man charged under the same article and her girlfriend, were scribbling notes ferociously during the trial.

"My brother also goes on trial soon," said Maria Bokaryova, whose brother faces charges that he beat up an African student. "We want to be prepared."