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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anti-Racism Activists Call for Strict Sentence

When the St. Petersburg City Court hands down sentences on Tuesday to seven men convicted of the lethal stabbing of an anti-racism campaigner, human rights activists -- who have long bemoaned light sentences for the perpetrators of hate-crimes -- will be watching closely.

Prosecutors want to see Andrei Shabalin, who was found guilty last week of killing Timur Kacharava, 20, receive a 14-year sentence.

Human rights campaigners have complained that authorities have been prone to clouding the real motives of attacks by classifying them as instances of hooliganism or alcohol-fuelled homicide.

"This has been a long standing problem in the justice system," Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy head of the Sova center, an organization that tracks xenophobia and hate crimes, said in a telephone interview. A charge such as hooliganism permitted leniency because it could only be punished by a maximum sentence of seven years, she said.

But there is evidence, experts say, that judges are starting to crack down.

President Vladimir Putin has spoken publicly on numerous occasions lately about fighting extremism. While political opponents say the Kremlin is characterizing any form of dissent as "extremism," Putin's pronouncements may be prompting judges to hand down harsher sentences in hate crimes, said Semyon Charny of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

Shabalin was also found guilty of the attempted murder of Kacharava's fellow campaigner Maxim Zgibai. The two were attacked outside a bookstore in November 2005, by a group of teenagers, aged 17 to 20, armed with knives. While Kacharava died of blood loss shortly after the stabbing, Zgibai survived despite multiple knife wounds and severe brain damage.

Shabalin and six other defendants also have been found guilty of inciting ethnic hatred. A state prosecutor suggested shorter terms of from 2.5 to 4.5 years for the others.

"Russia has specific legislation against hate crimes and it should put it to use," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The problem that many acts that looked like hate crimes are classified as something else, like hooliganism, not only hides the fact that they exist, but also makes it difficult to track their rise and decline."

The justice system, she said, should be fair toward perpetrators in issuing sentences that are neither too harsh nor too lenient. But that was just one approach to tackling the problem. "You also need public awareness and political leadership," Denber said.

The Kremlin has come under fire in the West for its increasing control over the national media.

One silver lining is that the Kremlin could raise public awareness of racial issues much more easily than in the West, Denber said.

"The tendency is present both in the judiciary and in politics, and this is because the courts are controlled by the president," Charny said.

Human rights lawyer Olga Tseitlina, who represents the Kacharava family, said she was bewildered by "attempts to present anti-fascists as a radical youth group of an extremist nature."

"The defendants' lawyers almost made it sound as if Timur got what was coming to him and the judge and prosecutors should just turn a blind eye," Tseitlina said.

"We were being forced to prove the most obvious things, like the difference between fascism and anti-fascism, so the discussion at times found itself balancing on the brink of absurdity," Tseitlina said. "We have to prove that blatantly open fascist rhetoric is discriminatory and dangerous."

But things might be on the mend. "There is a tendency for harsher sentencing and, furthermore, not only those who kill people, but also those who say and write that it's necessary to kill, are arrested," Charny said.

In a report to be released later this month, Charny says that courts are more and more willing to sentence offenders under Article 282 of the Criminal Code, which punishes intentions to "incite hatred or enmity" of a group of persons based on their ethnicity and religion.

According to the report, among the 31 people convicted of hate crimes during the first half of this year, only five were let off with suspended or light sentences like communal labor, while the remaining 26 got prison sentences of up to 20 years. Most of the sentences were between five and 10 years.

Kozhevnikova, however, said she did not see a trend toward harsher punishments, although she said that suspended sentences had become rarer. Apart from the main assailant, who is charged with murder, the defendants in the St. Petersburg trial will probably get away with relatively lenient sentences, she said.

Courts could aid in deterring potential attackers with harsh sentences, Kozhevnikova said. She cited the city of Voronezh as an example, where racial tensions have run high in recent years and two foreign students were killed.

"Tough sentences were handed down, and this might discourage further assaults even though the town is a center for skinheads," she said.

The country has seen a flurry of xenophobic attacks in the past years.

Human rights activists estimate that there are around 70,000 skinheads nationwide. According to research by the Sova center, 37 people have been killed so far this year in racist crimes -- 24 of them in Moscow. Kozhevnikova said that number was up 22 percent from the same period last year.

But most organizations agree that such crimes are still both underreported and too often not prosecuted.

Staff Writer Galina Stolyarova contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.