June 03, 2006
Russia's Hate Crimes
BY Kelly Whalen
Editor's Note: Reporter Kelly Whalen has written an update following new developments in the murder case of Russian human rights activist Nikolai Girenko. Girenko was the subject of Whalen's August 2005 Rough Cut report, "Murder in St. Petersburg", about the rise in Russia's hate crimes.
The announcement by Russian authorities last week that five suspected neo-Nazis in police custody will be charged with the killing of Russian hate crimes expert Nikolai Girenko came as a surprise break in a case that many believed had gone cold. When Girenko was gunned down in his home in June 2004, dozens of investigators were assigned to the high-profile case. By the time I traveled to St. Petersburg in March 2005 to report on the progress of the investigation, 100 people had already been questioned, and the last remaining investigator on the case reported to me that they weren't any closer to discovering who was responsible for the murder.
A wave of hate-motivated violence this spring finally led authorities to the five young men detained for Girenko's murder, among other crimes. Following the news, I contacted family members and colleagues of Girenko I'd met in Russia last year. They said they were encouraged by the new development in the murder case, but were careful not to rush to judgment.
"My father would have scrupulously followed this court case," said Girenko's youngest daughter, Sophia Girenko. Girenko is survived by another daughter who witnessed his killing. "He understood that anything is possible, and that sometimes innocent people are prosecuted as well. There will be further investigations."
April became one of the bloodiest months in Russia's recent history of racist violence and neo-Nazi activity, with a hate-motivated murder or assault happening almost on a daily basis. St. Petersburg faces international scrutiny with a G-8 Summit meeting planned in Russia's second city this July. Among the concerns that member countries will likely table is democratic progress -- or lack there of -- in Russia.
"It's too early to say if these are the men accountable," says Washington D.C.-based Nickolai Butkevich, Research and Advocacy Director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Butkevich recently testified before the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the state of hate crimes in Russia.
"There has been progress," says Butkevich. "But there is still a lot of resistance at top levels to admitting there is even a problem. It's not enough to have a few good cops."
The five young men in custody have not yet been formally charged for Girenko's murder, or the suspected killings of more than one foreign student. If prosecutors apply the Russian equivalent of the U.S. hate crime statute, which Girenko helped develop in his home country, the men could face stiffer charges of racial incitement.
"Girenko created a method to investigate and prosecute these types of criminals," said Vladimir Isakov, an independent journalist and human rights activist, featured in the original FRONTLINE/World report, after learning of the arrests. "And his method will help prosecute his killers."
Abigail Spindel contributed to this update.