Victims Say Racism on Rise After Nationalist Elections

St. Petersburg Times/January 23, 2004
By Ali Nassor

Racists in St. Petersburg have gone on a rampage, intensifying violent assaults against ethnic minorities since nationalist politicians triumphed in the State Duma last month, victims say.

The campaign was marked by calls of "Russia for the Russians," suggesting foreigners should be thrown out of the country. The most visible foreigners are those with dark skins.

But the city police accuse foreigners and human rights groups of exaggerating the magnitude of racial hate crimes, saying racist attacks are typical of any big city.

"I wouldn't say such crimes have reached the level of concern that you [foreigners] would like to believe," police spokesman Pavel Rayevsky said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "They are daily occurrences in big cities in the West."

Ethnic minorities, especially blacks and Asians, have tended to allege racism as a way of diverting attention from their involvement in crimes, he said.

But at least two African men were in critical condition after being stabbed by organized groups of young white supremacists in two unrelated incidents within a 24-hour period since Sunday evening.

Isaac Mwita, 23, a student of pre-university Russian-language courses who arrived in the country from Tanzania three months ago, was attacked by a group of five skinheads early Sunday evening. He said the "assault aimed at disfiguring and humiliating me with torture."

Mwita said the skinheads could easily have killed him after removing his winter jacket, forcing him to lie on the ice-covered ground and holding him by his ankles and wrists.

But instead, one of the assailants stabbed him in what seemed a ritual way and left him writhing in agony. His cries for help were ignored by distant witnesses.

Mwita was stabbed more than a dozen times. The wounds were in a pattern - to his knees and elbows, two wounds in the ears and two wounds just above them, but he was not stabbed in the abdomen, where injury could have been fatal. He was admitted to hospital in critical condition.

Rose Ngindu, 21, from Congo, who saw Mwita immediately after the incident, found a Nigerian male student sitting in a pool of blood near Ploshchad Vosstaniya on Nevsky Prospekt on Monday afternoon.

The man's face was disfigured by wounds that clearly came from a knife and he could hardly utter the words "Nigeria" and "Lesnaya" in reference to the country he came from and the location of his hostel. Ngindu was assisted by onlookers to carry the man to a cab, which took him home.

Eyewitnesses said the Nigerian had just been attacked by a group of about 10 skinheads who had kicked and stabbed him to within inches of his life.

Hours earlier, three African students, including one woman, reportedly made a narrow escape by catching a cab when they were chased by a large group of skinheads near Palace Square.

Ngindu, who has spent about a year in Russia while preparing to study for a degree in international relations, said she has decided to go back home because ethnic minority students are defenseless in the city.

Quang Son, a first-year computer science student from Vietnam, has a 6-centimeter scar on his cheek he sustained last summer from being stabbed by skinheads who attacked him and a male compatriot. His friend Nam, who was severely injured, had to go home immediately.

A random interview with 10 new students from developing countries in one city hostel revealed that all had suffered or witnessed violent racial attacks on the streets, but none reported the attacks to the police, citing their lack of trust in the law enforcers.

Local musician Andrei Platonov witnessed a group of about 10 skinheads assaulting a man from Burundi in broad daylight on St. Isaac's Square on Victory Day last year.

The man managed to break free of his assailants and rushed to two nearby police officers for assistance, but they shrugged him off, suggesting he should avoid such places on public holidays. Immediately after the police were called away, the group beat him again until he lost consciousness.

Yury Vdovin, deputy head of the St. Petersburg branch of the international human rights organization Citizen's Watch, said local police tend to "protect the state from citizens and, make a saint of the government, which ... supports the rising wave of extremism, xenophobia and racism in a society dominated by the legacy of the communist-defined 'patriotism.'

"It is like saying, 'we [the state] cannot do it openly, so let the young [extremists] do the job for us,'" he said.

Vdovin said there are about 300 organized racist groups across Russia with about 20 in the Northwest region.

But the police say there are only 50 individuals in the city who organize and incite hatred against non-Russians.

"We know them all, and they are under our close scrutiny," Rayevsky said. For example, a leader of the local fascist organization Shultz 88 was last month convicted for inciting racial hatred and advocating fascist ideology.

But Vdovin said that case had been going on for years, amid debates whether the case deserved criminal proceedings.

Congo student Arnold Obambi has his own evidence that the police don't take racial assaults seriously. He said they forced him to pay 1,000 rubles in damages to one of seven skinheads who assaulted him last summer and whom he injured in self defense.

Obambi was arrested two weeks after the incident on charges of disturbing public order and causing bodily injuries to the "victim." The police suggested he should pay the sum to the "victim" to avoid a four- to seven-year jail term.

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